Due to the potential for serious and widespread outbreaks of waterborne disease, managing the risk of microbiological contamination of drinking water is of particular importance. In New Zealand, drinking water quality and safety are regulated under the Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Act 2007. However, there remains a subset of the population for whom there is no such regulation of drinking water quality and safety.
Rural households dependent on drinking water self-supplies, such as private wells, must take full responsibility for maintaining, monitoring and treating their own drinking water. Research suggests that these households often fail to engage in the actions recommended by public health authorities to protect drinking water quality and safety. To understand why this might be, this study set out to explore rural people’s perspectives on drinking water self-supplies in one rural location in New Zealand: Hinds, Mid Canterbury.
Taking a social constructionist standpoint, I interviewed 15 residents responsible for and dependent on drinking water self-supplies in the rural Hinds area. Social constructionists argue that there is no single truth or reality. What is accepted as knowledge today is simply one of many ways of thinking which has been given the status of truth where others have not. Therefore, the social constructionist encourages society to question accepted knowledge and to consider why it came to be seen as the ‘truth’ in the first place.
Through semi-structured in depth interviews, I focused on the Hinds residents’ experiences with their drinking water self-supplies, their understanding of the risks thereof, and their perceptions of drinking water quality testing. A sample of drinking water from each participating household was tested for Escherichia coli (E. coli) by an accredited laboratory. Three of the thirteen samples collected were found to contain E. coli. The residents were provided with their test results as a means of initiating discussion on drinking water quality testing.
A thematic analysis of the data collected found that the rural Hinds residents I interviewed discussed water in a much wider context than simply their drinking water. They described how drinking water quality and quantity was influenced by other water resources in the area, drawing connections between groundwater, irrigation water and surface water bodies. To these water resources they applied a broad definition of water quality that extended beyond microbiological contamination to include health and the aesthetic attributes of water.
The data analysis confirmed that my participants held sole responsibility for their drinking water self-supplies. However, drinking water was just one of a number of competing priorities for the rural Hinds residents I interviewed and, as such, drinking water quality and safety may benefit from a collaborative effort between rural residents and public health professionals. Rather than relying on scientific understandings of risk in promoting drinking water quality and safety, public health professionals may experience greater success in appealing to local values.
These values include the protection of vulnerable populations, the preservation of resources for future generations, and the security of income and land values. Future research might expand on these understandings by seeking the views of non-farming rural residents in other areas of New Zealand, as well as those residents who have contracted a waterborne disease from their drinking water in the past, or are dependent on a different type of drinking water self-supply as their perspectives may differ from those of the participants in this study.