A Decade On, New Zealand Is Yet to Properly Reckon with our Tolerance for Risk

On the tenth anniversary of the M6.2 Christchurch earthquake, it was alarming to reflect on the ways in which we are still putting ourselves in harm's way in the face of natural hazards. Kelvin Berryman, Hugh Cowan and I wrote this piece to call for a more coordinated and collaborative approach to risk management in New Zealand. Published on The Spinoff 24th February 2021. www.thespinoff.co.nz
Picture of Ursula Cochran

Ursula Cochran

Science Writer

McKenzie and Willis Buildings in Christchurch ten days after the 2011 earthquake. Photo by Margaret Low courtesy of GNS Science.

How’s progress, New Zealand? Do we still have buildings that could kill 115 people in one go? Yes. Are we still building on liquefiable land? Yes. Do we have essential services in the path of rockfalls and tsunamis? Yes. Are we planning to build on known active fault zones? Yes.

A decade after the Christchurch earthquake, we’ve been busy fixing things, getting lives and livelihoods back in order, and learning as much as we can of what the earthquake had to teach us. We’ve also been hit by more earthquakes, a volcanic eruption, extreme weather events, and a pandemic. There is always something going on in Aotearoa – which is why the country needs a state-of-the-art risk management system. We’re not talking about emergency management. We’re talking about a system that ensures hazards do not become disasters because we’ve weighed up the risks and prepared in advance.

Natural hazard events are inevitable. Disasters are not. Disasters only arise when a natural hazard event occurs in a community that is not prepared and not able to respond effectively or is overwhelmed. A bit of risk management can make a big difference: the US has had 150 deaths from Covid-19 per 100,000 people; by the same measure, New Zealand has had 0.5 deaths. The different ways we prepared and chose to respond to the same hazard have led to markedly different outcomes. Yes, we have some natural advantages, but we made sure we maximised them by using the science and adapting to new developments in understanding.

Risk management involves assessing risks and deciding what to do about them before they happen. Depending on your appetite for disaster, risk can be treated anywhere along a continuum from complete avoidance, to implementing control measures, to transferring the risk, or accepting it (the ACTA framework). Mitigating risk lies between the end-points of avoidance and acceptance and usually consists of control measures such as engineering safer land and structures. These can be perceived as costly, but when assessed over the lifetime of the structures, there is, almost invariably, a good return on investment. The return is even greater if the social costs of not doing the work are considered. Mitigating risks for major events results in elimination of risk for smaller, more frequent events. And, there are social and economic benefits even if the hazardous events never occur. Think of the peace-time advantages of an additional transport corridor out of Wellington regardless of whether it is needed in a major emergency.

Effective risk management also provides huge social benefit – the reduction or elimination of trauma. The mental health issues that persist in Christchurch a decade after the earthquake illustrate why disaster risk reduction is such a worthwhile pursuit from a human perspective. Risk management sounds like an obvious choice. But it does rely on future-focused planning so, if you’ve been busy responding to disasters, it can get deprioritised.

There are many people and agencies across the country working towards risk management goals. New Zealand signalled its intention globally by signing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015. Excellent national strategy has followed on from this such as the National Disaster Resilience Strategy – a document worthy of wide readership. We are getting to know our hazards through investment in research. Effective communication of research findings is leading to greater community understanding. Recognition of the social cost of disasters is coming to the fore. Initiatives such as the national vulnerability assessment are providing insights into where “hotspots” of critical lifelines occur. Councils are engaging with communities to make their own decisions about risk. Modelling tools have been developed to help make decisions. The Christchurch rebuild has incorporated many resilience measures such as earthquake resistant buildings and treatment of ground to make it stronger.

There is good work being done. But for every strategy document heading in the right direction, there is another that ignores hazard and risk. For every piece of hazard communication, there are things going unsaid. For every hotspot identified, there is a business case waiting to be written or funded. And while Christchurch may be leading the way with resilient design, the rest of the country is taking its time to follow suit. It seems that much of the risk management effort is fragmented and so is not coming to fruition as policy or practice.

What we need now is unifying leadership to co-ordinate our approach to risk management, make better use of what we know, and implement strategies developed by successive governments. The restructure of the Resource Management Act may be a vehicle for this, but there needs to be an all-hazard and all-risk approach. Hazard and risk information must be easily accessible so kiwis can make well-informed decisions about what level of risk they’re willing to live with. Some may still choose to tour an active volcano even when they know there’s a chance of eruption without warning.

The ACTA framework (avoid, control, transfer, accept) must be used in a more systematic manner nationally – tying in to the human, social, natural, physical/financial capitals outlined in Treasury’s living standards framework. The four Rs of emergency management (reduction, readiness, response, recovery) serve us well but emphasis must move from response and recovery to reduction and readiness. There needs to be greater investment in resilience measures. A broader understanding of the social and economic benefits of investment in risk assessment and mitigation will facilitate this. We need to acknowledge that short-term thinking may come at the expense of future lives and livelihoods.

Risk belongs to everyone. It’s not up to central and local government to find all the solutions. We all live here and everyone has a different tolerance for risk – we all need to be part of the conversation. At the moment we are creating new risk all the time. New disasters are waiting to happen. We are stuck in disaster response mode. Instead, let’s prioritise risk management in New Zealand, get onto the front foot, and avert future disasters.