How we started in New Zealand: How have we improved in 175 years?

Takapuna, North Shore City, Auckland, New Zealand
Takapuna,  Auckland, New Zealand (Photo credit: Sandy Austin)

Story: Sewage, water and waste

 Māori and colonial settlements

Every settlement needs a healthy water supply for drinking, cooking and washing, and safe ways to dispose of waste water, solid refuse and excrement. Settlements lacking these suffer high sickness and death rates from preventable diseases.

Māori public hygiene

Early Māori settlements were hygienic. Sanitary arrangements included:

  • special sites for rubbish disposal, with designated people to ensure waste was put there
  • purpose-built latrines where excrement was not allowed to build up
  • raised and sealed storehouses to keep food free of contamination
  • purpose-built houses for giving birth or dying, which were destroyed immediately after use.

Māori also had a system of identifying and regulating the use of different grades of water, from most pure to least pure. Used water was always disposed of on land, not into another body of water.

Dirty new towns

New Zealand’s first urban Pākehā settlements were established in the 1840s and 1850s. Landowners and speculators subdivided land (including swampy and tidal areas) into lots, which often had poor access, no safe and sufficient water supply, and no hygienic disposal of waste water and sewage, either on site or through drainpipes. There was also no public provision for removing solid waste (rubbish) from homes or businesses.

From the 1840s water was obtained mainly from urban streams (which by the 1860s were badly polluted with animal and human waste), and from springs, shallow wells or open rainwater tanks. Once contaminated by household or industrial waste, water was disposed of via cesspits (holes in the ground) and open drains – or back into waterways. Rubbish accumulated around houses and businesses, and in the streets. Dead animals (from rats to bullocks) littered streets and waterways, while horse, sheep and cow dung was common. Human excrement was sometimes thrown into the street too.

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