Water crisis jars officials into action

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The small community of Askøy on Norway’s West Coast is gathering residents for public meetings this week to calm fears after the local drinking water supply was contaminated. The Askøy crisis has shaken waterworks officials all over the country who have long postponed needed maintenance.

Threats to drinking water supplies have suddenly grabbed attention all over Norway. PHOTO: Klima- og miljødepartementet

“Both parents and children are scared,” Askøy’s acting mayor Bård Espelid told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday.

Espelid was relieved, however, that the number of ill Askøy residents has dramatically declined this week, after an estimated 2,000 suffered severe stomach ailments tied to the contaminated drinking water. Nearly 80 were admitted to hospital in Bergen, while the deaths of a one-year-old boy and 72-year-old woman are also believed to have been caused by the bad water.

They were all infected with the bacteria campylobacter, which Espelid said had now been linked to deer excrement that seeped into a storage pool and spread E-coli bacteria to the drinking water supply. The storage pool has been permanently closed and blocked from entering the system that distribute drinking water, but residents are still being warned to boil all water out of the tap for at least another month to six weeks.

‘Scandal’
The drinking water crisis in Askøy is nonetheless being called a “scandal” because of how local politicians failed to monitor inspection and maintenance of the local waterworks. They’re not alone, as local officials all over the country face daunting investments needed in their water supplies. State inspectors at the food safety authority Mattilsynet also lack an overview of cracks in the mountain above the faulty drinking water storage pool, through which the bacteria is believed to have seeped.

Acting Mayor Espelid faced the task of trying to explain to local residents how their drinking water could have been contaminated, and what’s being done to make sure it never happens again. Norway’s bigger cities also face challenges, even though drinking water in Norway is known for being cold amd clear.

‘Wake-up call’
Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized over the weekend that the Askøy water crisis “must serve as a wake-up call” to local officials to inspect and upgrade drinking water systems. State authorities warned that many communities in Norway have old water pipes, inadequate back-up systems and are too slow at renovating water system infrastructure.

Oslo, meanwhile, is in the process of establishing a new drinking water reserve system fed by water from the Holsfjord west of the city. Fully 90 percent of Oslo’s population currently gets its drinking water from the large lake Maridalsvannet, in the valley of Maridalen on the city’s north side. If anything were to happen to that water supply, wrote Aftenposten, nearly all 270,000 people within the city’s Ring 3 would lose their water in a matter of hours.

That’s why a reserve system has become necessary, to bring Holsfjord water via a 19-kilometer-long tunnel to a new water filtration plant at Huseby in Oslo. Construction of the roughly NOK 10 billion project is due to start next year, financed mostly through higher water and sewage fees.

Other cities, towns and small communities need to evaluate and likely improve their water systems as well, after the crisis in Askøy. “If anything good can come out of this scandal,” wrote Aftenposten, “it must be that drinking water supplies rise higher on the public agenda.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund