Dirty drinking water could 'destroy New Zealand's tourism industry'

An organisation that keeps an eye on the state of New Zealand's water says the quality of our drinking water is so bad in places, it could lead to mass death.

Water New Zealand says if we don't do something soon, we'll see another contamination like the Havelock North one - and that in turn could destroy our tourism industry.

"It's only a matter of time before another Havelock North incident happens unless we make some changes," Water NZ CEO John Pfahlert told Newshub.

He's referring to the Campylobacter outbreak of 2016, which killed four people and saw more than 5000 people fall ill.

"In reality, it could've killed a great deal more people. It would've only needed a small difference in the bug that was in the water in Havelock North, and we'd have had dozens of people die."

The latest drinking water statistics are pretty alarming; they show one in five people are drinking substandard water.

Water NZ says smaller towns that have an influx of tourists well above the number of local residents are most at risk.

Around 70 percent of people in small towns - including places like Punakaiki, Waitomo Caves and Milford Sound - are drinking tap water that doesn't meet Ministry of Health quality standards.

And in slightly bigger towns, about half of the population drinks water that's not up to scratch. That includes tourist hot spots like Whangamata, Martinborough and Coromandel.

The quality of drinking water is so bad in places, there's fears it could affect our tourism industry.

"If there was to be any repeat of an incident like that it would have an impact on our reputation," says Tourism Industry Aotearoa CEO Chris Roberts.

The Coromandel was singled out, so it's spending $15 million upgrading its treatment plants.

"In terms of our visitors, it would be quite devastating - you'd see an immediate withdrawal of visitor numbers," says Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Sandra Goudie.

The Government says across the country it will cost $500 million to upgrade infrastructure - and it won't be easy.

"The costs are huge. The Government hasn't got a bottomless pit to draw on," Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta says.

A review is underway on how to fix the problem, and will go to Cabinet next month.

While drinking water might be a basic necessity, there's certainly no simple solution to ensuring its safe.