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Sewage, water and waste

by Christine Dann

New Zealand’s early cities reeked of rotting rubbish, dead animals and excrement, and water sources were often contaminated. While much has changed since then, disposing safely of waste and providing clean water remain challenges.

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.

Dirt and disease

Infectious diseases

In the 19th century infectious diseases transmitted by contact with excrement were rampant, including typhoid fever, typhus, cholera, polio, dysentery and diarrhoea. So were diseases transmitted by breathing – scarlet fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis and others. A scientific understanding of the organisms which cause these diseases, and their transmission, only developed in the late 1800s. Before this they were classified as 'zymotic’ – derived from the Greek word for fermentation. This classification correctly linked these diseases with people crowding together close to rotting waste, impure water and air.

Dung street


In the 1860s some Dunedin houses lacked even an outhouse. In places excrement and urine were collected in pails and hurled into the street under cover of night. Horses also regularly defecated in the streets. Pedestrians today screw up their noses at dog excrement, but crossing Dunedin streets in the 1800s involved avoiding piles of dung.



In the mid-1860s conditions in Dunedin, New Zealand’s largest city, were so bad that a Sanitary Commission was appointed to investigate and recommend solutions. Doctors told the Commission that the death rate of 35 per 1,000 per annum (many from infectious diseases) put Dunedin on a par with the unhealthiest English towns. The scarlet fever death rate of 79.1 per 10,000 was almost nine times the London average at this time.


Christchurch also appointed a Sanitary Commission in the 1860s, by which time the 'crystal clear' Avon River observed by the first Pākehā settlers was filthy. Water-borne diseases were rife. In the 1870s Christchurch's annual death rate was 30.4 per 1,000 – almost double the national figure. Diseases caused by poor sanitation were common and taken for granted. Although typhoid killed 49 people in Christchurch in 1875, the next year the local Board of Health chair questioned whether cases needed to be notified. Canterbury suffered more deaths from diphtheria than any other province in the 1870s, but the Board of Health paid little attention to the outbreak.


Wellington was also dangerously dirty. Just weeks before Parliament opened in the new capital for the first time in 1865, sewage was washing into its grounds from surrounding streets. The city also suffered from typhoid. An 1870 study showed that none of the water collected from wells or tanks in crowded parts of the city was safe to drink, and all town streams were too polluted to use. Wellington’s filthy, smelly air, water and soil were debated in Parliament, and MPs and their resident families were concerned.


Auckland was no safer – it was described as having no rivals when it came to the matter of smells. An infamous open drain, the Ligar Canal, ran down Queen Street in the 1840s and 1850s. Although an underground pipe system was slowly constructed over the next 10 years, it still discharged all its contents, untreated, a short way off the Queen Street wharf. By 1900 there were five outlets discharging raw sewage into the harbour.

In Auckland, as in the other cities, efforts were made in the 1870s to prevent the spread of disease. Cesspits (holes dug under backyard outhouses and filled with human waste) were prohibited and closed. Contracts were let for the collection and disposal of night soil (human excrement), and water was piped from pure sources. Unfortunately in the 1890s Auckland started dumping night soil just above its clean water source at Western Springs, which was also being polluted by abattoir waste. Auckland was also slower than the other cities in organising a proper sewerage system. By 1900 its zymotic disease rate, at 30.8 per 10,000, was three times the national average, and its infant mortality rate 50% above the average.

Stinking cities

Vested interests

A lack of hygienic care around waste and water was typical of urban society in both Europe and New Zealand in the mid-1800s. This was made worse by politics and corruption. Provincial governments fairly quickly devolved responsibility for municipal administration to town boards, but did not provide adequate funding for clean water supplies and other sanitary facilities.

City councils with independent powers to strike rates, borrow money and manage municipal affairs were set up in the 1860s and 1870s. They met resistance from property owners, who did not want to finance sanitary works through paying rates – or through council loans which might lead to increased rates. In some cases local-body politicians were property owners profiting from not paying for proper sanitation.

In a similar conflict of interest, land-owning politicians carved up land in the first urban subdivisions, with no requirement for proper sanitary arrangements. John Hyde Harris, the mayor of Dunedin in 1867, failed to clean up his unsanitary cottages on the edge of the badly polluted swamp on the north edge of town, despite several warnings and being fined. The inspector of nuisances felt that he could not act against other offenders while the mayor refused to obey the law.

From cesspits to night-men

Open drains carrying sewage, and filled with other rubbish, stank in warm weather. By the 1860s the cities realised they had a problem. Yet it was the 1870s before money was raised to improve conditions. The most important steps were cheap – banning cesspits and requiring night-soil collections.

A cesspit was a hole dug in a backyard, with an outhouse erected on top – when it filled, a new hole was dug. Pretty soon backyards were riddled with holes full of excrement.

Cesspits were prohibited in the 1870s. Night soil had to be removed (at the householder's expense) by council contractors who came to be known as night-men. They had to work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., emptying pails of excrement into their carts, which had specially constructed wooden tanks. Many householders simply ignored the regulations, so illegal disposal of human waste continued to be a nuisance and a hazard in some places.

Councils set up 'manure depots' on the edges of town – often on dunelands – where collected night soil was dumped. Workers there were meant to bury the waste, but didn’t always do so adequately. The solution to these insanitary human waste dumps was to turn the night soil into sewage, mixing water with human and industrial waste in underground pipes that (initially) discharged it all untreated into the sea or rivers.

The first sewers

Piping human waste only became feasible with the introduction of high-pressure water supplies that could flush toilets into the newly-constructed sewers.

Sewerage systems were completed in Dunedin in 1908, Wellington in 1899 and Auckland in 1914. Christchurch’s system was finished first, in 1882, but a high-pressure city-wide water supply only arrived in 1909. Being sited on a swamp made drainage a priority, and the sewer system was part of much wider drainage works.

Goodbye to the night cart

In some settlements without sewers, the night-soil system hung on for decades. Bluff residents had a night-soil collection until the mid-1960s. Kāinga in North Canterbury is reputed to be the last place that had a night cart – in 1986. Even in Auckland, the country’s largest city, a few isolated houses still used buckets until 1969, when a century of night-soil collection ended with little fanfare.

In all cities sewer construction occurred in stages, beginning downtown, and gradually extending to the urban edges. Night soil was still collected from some areas in the 1960s, although by then it was disposed of into a proper sewerage system. Septic tanks were installed in areas that lacked sewage reticulation from the early 1900s.

Public toilets were slow to arrive. Hotels had toilets, as did some large department stores, but the first municipal restrooms in Dunedin were only built in 1927.

Water supply

Drinking water

All the cities urgently needed town water supplies by the 1860s, and dams were built in the surrounding hills.


Dunedin had its first reservoir by 1867. Capacity was soon exceeded and in 1881 water was piped from the Silverstream catchment to augment the supply.


In Christchurch the Avon River and various pools were used to supplement rainwater. Residents also quickly took advantage of the gravel aquifers below the city by digging wells in backyards and building windmills to pump up the water. From 1863 the city council experimented with deep artesian wells. Public wells, complete with troughs, drinking fountains and pumps, were built. Reticulation of high-pressure water from council wells and a pumping station were proposed in the 1870s, but did not happen until 1909.


Wellington's first waterworks – the Karori reservoir – started operating in 1874. In 1884, the water supply was bolstered by supplies piped in from the Wainuiomata River in the Hutt Valley.


Auckland began piping water from Western Springs in 1877. By the early 1900s the Auckland City Council realised that it would need a long-term strategy to slake a growing city’s thirst. In the early 1900s the council built small, and then larger, dams in the Waitākere Ranges. With demand growing the council eyed up the larger Hūnua Ranges catchment. Much larger dams such as Cossey's Creek (1955) and the huge Upper Mangatāwhiri reservoir (1965) followed. Treated water from the Waikato River first supplemented the city’s water supply in July 2002 – more than 130 years after it was first suggested. In the early 2000s up to 75,000 cubic metres of Waikato River water was pumped through 38 kilometres of pipes each day, supplying around 10% of Auckland’s needs. The North Shore's water supply was originally drawn from Lake Pupuke, but switched to Auckland City’s system in 1945. Since 1959 North Shore City’s water supply line has run along the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Water treatment

By the mid-1960s around 70% of the population was served by a public water supply. Most of the remaining households obtained water from springs, streams, shallow wells, artesian bores and roof catchments.

Most town water supplies had very little treatment – water was just piped from a river or lake. Treatment is mainly necessary to reduce the risk of microbiological contaminants such as giardia and cryptosporidium making people sick. Chlorination is the most common treatment method – a chemical compound is mixed with water to kill bacteria. Other common treatments are coagulation (making fine particles drop out) and filtration. Chlorination was introduced to many supplies in the 1950s, and fluoride was added to some in the 1960s to improve dental health. A 1960 survey of public water supplies using World Health Organization criteria rated 35% of supplies as ‘good’, 41% as ‘doubtful’ and 24% as ‘unsatisfactory’.

The Health (Drinking Water) Amendment Act 2007 amended the 1956 Health Act. Before this, 500,000 people had drinking water that did not meet New Zealand standards – which were voluntary. The act imposed duties on all suppliers to ensure that their water was safe to drink. Water is tested daily in large water supplies and monthly in small supplies.

Paying for water

In Auckland and some other cities, domestic water metering has been introduced. Meters measure the amount of water used, and users are charged for this. Most towns and cities do not have metering and water supply is paid for through council rates.


Urban drinking water also came under threat from a new source in the 2000s. The massive intensification and spread of dairy farming led to over-allocation of fresh water for irrigation in some places, and greater pollution of water sources.

Solid waste

A century of dumping and burning

In the 1860s solid waste (rubbish) removal and disposal was erratic and inadequate. In addition to household rubbish was the potentially dangerous waste of slaughterhouses, butchers' shops and dairies within the city, and noxious solid-waste industries of all kinds.

Households and businesses were expected to make their own waste-disposal arrangements. Some hired men known as scavengers who carted and deposited rubbish elsewhere – not necessarily hygienically. Men with carts also collected bottles, rags (for making paper) and bones (to be ground up for fertiliser). Many people just let rubbish fester at the back of shops, factories and houses, or put it in the street. When by-laws requiring premises to use private scavenger services proved ineffective, councils began to employ scavengers to clean up streets. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many city councils employed men with horses and carts, who made daily rounds of streets collecting refuse. By the 1930s carts were being replaced by trucks that made weekly collections in most cities, taking household refuse to destructors or tips. Rubbish collectors were often called ‘dusties’, short for dustmen.



Around 1900, when there was a bubonic plague scare, cities paid special attention to uncollected rubbish – especially around harbours – as it was encouraging rat infestations. Bounties were offered for dead rats, and some hotel and shop owners employed rat catchers.


Piles of rubbish

Dumping rubbish in piles within or at the edges of town was no more sanitary than leaving it in informal piles. The Wellington City Council yards on Clyde Quay in the 1880s were unpleasant. Scavengers delivered carts of refuse which householders and businesses had deposited in iron boxes on the streets. It was tipped on the edge of the yards and burned. To try and control the smoke and smell, the council constructed a giant incinerator with twin tall chimneys in 1889. Extended in 1908, it generated enough power to pump sewage to the Moa Point outfall. It closed in 1946. In 1905 Auckland also opted for a destructor as the solution to its solid-waste problem.


Incinerators were expensive, while land was cheap. Most towns opted for tips on their outskirts for industrial and domestic refuse in the 1900s. Some dumps were established on land taken from Māori under the Public Works Act.

By the 1930s rubbish was largely carried in trucks rather than by horse and cart. From the 1950s some of the waste entering these dumps was hazardous, such as agricultural chemicals and other highly toxic substances. There were increasing amounts of non-biodegradable materials. Air was polluted by open-air burning of waste, and waterways were polluted by leachate (liquid chemicals that seep out of tips).

Cleaning up dumps

1970 Physical Environment Conference

The environmental effects of dumps were not officially considered a problem until 1970. A national Physical Environment Conference that year noted that 'controlled tipping' was the main form of solid waste disposal. It was also known as sanitary landfill, but New Zealand’s tips were far from sanitary. It was the cheapest way to dispose of rubbish, and when tips were full they were covered in earth, creating useful land – but standards varied.

The conference recommended that the Board of Health study the problem and its solutions, and recommend policy and practice changes. A Committee on Pollution of the Environment was created. In 1971 the first national survey documented 563 landfills. In 1973 the committee issued New Zealand's first manual on solid waste disposal, for the use of local authorities. It commented that many landfills were 'no better than open dumps which are aesthetically objectionable and dangerous to human and animal health'.1 At the time landfills were known as tips or dumps – they were simply holes in the ground. Unsupervised tipping was common, especially at smaller sites, and so was scavenging of dumped items at the tip face. Many tips were close to waterways, which became polluted by leachate (liquid seeping from the landfill). Little progress was made over the 1970s, although some small illegal tips were closed.

Bigger and more controlled dumps

After the Ministry for the Environment was set up in 1986 and the Resource Management Act was passed in 1991, more attention was paid to solid waste reduction and environmentally safe disposal. The government issued a national waste policy in 1992. The Ministry for the Environment led efforts to reduce waste, and to allocate costs of safe disposal to those who generate waste.

A national landfill census in 1995 found that over 95% of New Zealand's waste was going to landfills, and some of it was causing significant environmental and public health problems. The 2006–7 landfill census found a definite shift towards fewer, larger tips, and good progress in collecting and preventing leachate, but little progress in collecting landfill gas produced by decaying rubbish.

Hazardous waste

New Zealand was also exporting significant amounts of hazardous waste to Asian countries with poor environmental standards. In 2002 national and local government agreed on a national waste strategy, which set targets for improving waste management, waste minimisation and the efficient use of resources. Attention was also paid to the increasing volume and toxicity of hazardous waste, but an audit of hazardous waste policies and practices in 2005 found many inadequacies.

Sanitary landfills

By the 1980s New Zealand’s landfills were still far from overseas best practice. True sanitary landfills need to have their base lined with an impermeable synthetic or natural material, such as clay. They also need collection systems for leachate (so it can be disposed of in the sewerage system) and for methane generated by decomposing rubbish.

In the 1990s and 2000s major improvements occurred. Green-waste tipping sites and recycling was introduced. Tipping was increasingly controlled. Instead of dumping rubbish at a tip face among screeching gulls while a large compactor moved back and forth, refuse was left at a transfer point, typically a concrete bunker. Workers monitored the waste and reclaimed items for recycling or reuse. The rest was then carted by truck up to the landfill and buried.

    • Committee on Pollution of the Environment, A manual on solid waste disposal in New Zealand. Wellington: Board of Health, 1973, p. 1. Back

Recycling and waste minimisation

Recycling begins

Public complaints about waste disposal increased over the 1960s. For the first time pollution registered as a national political issue. Some 3.5% of those polled before the 1972 general election thought pollution was the most important problem facing the country.

Recycling was a top priority for environmental action groups in the early 1970s. In Auckland these groups engaged in public education on reducing and reusing waste. They successfully lobbied Devonport Borough Council to begin New Zealand's first municipal recycling scheme in 1976. In 1978–79 voluntary recycling and lobbying also resulted in Christchurch trialling a recycling scheme.

A 1982 survey found 14 councils doing regular kerbside collections of recyclables, 52 operating recycling depots, and six composting at tip sites. However, the great majority of councils were doing nothing. In 1990 North Shore City became the first city to institute a full kerbside recycling scheme. Over the 1990s more councils introduced kerbside recycling and in some cases green-waste removal.

Wellington dusties


Unlike most other cities, Wellington had a back-door rubbish collection, despite its hilly topography: ‘By the 1960s, the “dusties” had become a Wellington institution as they scaled flights of steps in search of backdoor rubbish bins, a canvas sack over their shoulder. … All dusties dreaded the “wet bin”, where filthy water accompanied the rubbish that was emptied from bin to sack. Dogs and broken glass were other hazards.’1


Getting serious about waste reduction

By 2006 almost three-quarters of New Zealanders had kerbside recycling. More recycling had stabilised, but not significantly reduced, total annual waste tonnages.

The waste item of most concern in the 1970s and 1980s was beverage packaging. At first the emphasis was on collecting glass bottles for reuse, then on the environmental impact of non-reusable bottles. Finally the environmental impact and disposal costs of non-reusable and non-recyclable plastic and cardboard composite packaging were recognised as a major issue. In 2008 a Green Party private members’ bill on waste minimisation gained government support and became law. It gave New Zealand a strong national policy on reducing non-reusable, non-recyclable waste, superseding the voluntary Packaging Accord of 2004. However, consumerism, excessive packaging and planned obsolescence of products meant that waste volumes remained high.

    • Redmer Yska, Wellington: biography of a city. Auckland: Reed, 2006, p. 212. Back

Water pollution

Ad hoc approach to pollution

Water pollution increased throughout the 19th century but it was slow to gain national attention and action. The Pollution of Water Bill, introduced to Parliament in 1912, gave more rights to polluters than those affected by pollution, and was eventually dropped. A River Pollution Prevention Bill drafted in 1937 also failed to gain support, while the inter-departmental committee on pollution convened in the same year only made ad hoc recommendations.

A 1947 nationwide survey of water pollution found plenty of it. However, there was no political will to deal with pollution until 1953, when the Water Pollution Act was passed. This established a Pollution Advisory Council, which devised a tentative classification for water quality and developed model by-laws for trade wastes – but had no powers to actively monitor and control water pollution until 1963. The Water and Soil Conservation Act 1967 led to the 1972 creation of the Water Resources Council, which took over pollution control and water-quality responsibilities, working in collaboration with the Regional Water Boards established by the act.

Untreated sewage

By the 1970s industrial waste discharges had resulted in dead streams and highly polluted rivers in some urban areas. Cities discharging untreated sewage via ocean outfalls had shore pollution. As towns grew, all sewerage systems needed extending and upgrading.

In the 1950s, 27% of the population was not connected to a sewer. Some 40% of sewage was going untreated into the sea or streams. The rest received only primary treatment (removing solids) before discharge, or a minuscule amount of secondary treatment (aeration to help reduce its biological content). By the early 1970s there was little change in those without sewers, but untreated discharges had almost halved, with most of the change being primary treatment. In Auckland a major civic battle was fought from the 1930s to the 1950s over whether to pump the city's raw sewage further out into Waitematā Harbour, or to build land treatment facilities beside Manukau Harbour and discharge treated water only. The pro-treatment party won.

The last major centres to stop dumping raw sewage into the sea were Wellington and the Hutt Valley (in 1998 and 2001 respectively).

Starry water once again


The Waiwhetū Stream (ironically, Waiwhetū means ‘star-reflecting water’) in the Hutt Valley was sullied with industry waste for over 100 years, making it the most polluted stream in the Wellington region. Contaminants included toxic heavy metals. The commitment to a full decontamination and improvement programme was finally made in 2008, with the total cost of $6.4 million being shared between the Hutt City Council, the Ministry for the Environment and Greater Wellington regional council. The clean-up includes replanting banks with native plants.


Water pollution gets worse

Māori opposition to discharging liquid and solid waste into clean water was central to some of the first Waitangi Tribunal claims in the late 1970s and 1980s. Environmental claims to the Waitangi Tribunal decreased after the Resource Management Act was passed in 1991. This made explicit provision for Māori concerns to be heard as part of the planning process. It also contained provision for national policy statements, which set national standards and ways to achieve them for key environmental resources.

As water quality continued to decline in the 1990s and 2000s, a policy statement for fresh-water quality became more urgent. It was finally drafted and put out for evaluation in mid-2008. The Ministry for the Environment had issued water quality guidelines for fresh water in 1992, and had taken over the Water Resources Council’s role of classifying and monitoring water quality. It also had a programme of practical work around fresh and waste water since the 1990s. Despite this, water quality was getting worse, not better. Many urban waterways were badly polluted. Water clarity can be deceptive as it does not show contamination by heavy metals and other toxins in sediments.

Air pollution

Air pollution began early in the first New Zealand cities, mainly from burning coal for domestic and industrial use, but also from burning waste and as a by-product of certain industries that produced noxious gases. Burning domestic rubbish in backyard incinerators was a weekly or fortnightly ritual. In winter, cities and towns had palls of smoke. Respiratory diseases were common in towns from the 1860s.

There was little in the way of town planning until the Town Planning Act 1926. Following an amendment to this act in 1953, town planners increasingly used land zoning (separating industrial and residential areas) to minimise problems like smoke from factories and smell from slaughterhouses. Zoning changed the shape of cities yet it did not address the source of the problem.

Industrial air pollution was bad in all main centres. Campaigning to clean up the air did not begin seriously until the 1960s, starting in Christchurch, which was worst affected by smog. The Clean Air Act 1972 attempted to control industrial pollution by issuing licences for permissible emission levels, and led to more monitoring of air pollution in major centres. Local authorities were able to create clean air zones, and this was done in Christchurch. The act formed the legal basis for slow attempts to reduce pollution from domestic as well as industrial sources.


By the 1960s emissions from the rapidly increasing numbers of private motor vehicles were also a problem. Lead was first added to petrol to improve engine performance in the 1920s. By the 1970s lead emissions from cars had become a major urban pollutant, with children especially vulnerable. A campaign to remove lead from petrol was started by Friends of the Earth New Zealand in 1980. Phasing out of lead in petrol started in 1986 and took a decade to complete.

Costs of pollution

A 2007 study estimated that each year urban air pollution was causing around 1,100 premature deaths, 1,500 extra cases of bronchitis and related illnesses, 700 extra hospital admissions, and 1.9 million days when air pollution restricted people’s activity. It estimated the total cost at $1.14 billion per year.

Water, waste and recycling, early 2000s

In the early 2000s supplying clean water and disposing of waste safely remained a problem for New Zealand cities – as much as in the late 1800s. The same methods of supply and disposal – pipe it in and out, cart it away and dump it – were being used, with some diversion to recycling and municipal composting. The eco-design of buildings and urban areas so waste and water are not pulled in and pushed out, but natural resources are constantly regenerated on site instead, is one future option. But in the early 2000s the 19th-century model just went on getting bigger and more complex.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Christine Dann, 'Sewage, water and waste', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Christine Dann, published 11 March 2010