For New Zealand, disaster risk reduction is no academic issue. Our country and region are prone to natural disasters, including floods, cyclones and earthquakes. Our Pacific Island neighbours are particularly vulnerable – and, while, on a world scale, theirs’ can sometimes be small disasters, for small countries, the impact can be huge. Development gains can be wiped away by a single event.
Recently, New Zealand’s own disaster preparedness was put to the test. In September 2010 an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude struck, its epicentre not far from our second largest city, Christchurch. At only 5 km deep this was a major earthquake, the same magnitude as in Haiti. Despite $5 billion dollars of property damage, no one died.
Nearly six months later, aftershocks still continue, but recovery is well underway -a huge task that will take some years. There’s already been initial reflection on the response – an independent review is under way, and we may be able to share its findings in May’s session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Several factors contributed to the relatively limited consequences. First, we were lucky; it struck at 4.30 on a Saturday morning. Commercial areas were closed and most people were at home. At another time of day the story could have been different. Although close to Christchurch, the epicentre was in a mainly rural area.
Second, building codes generally worked. These must take account of an area’s “hazard-scape”, and must be enforced by local authorities. Much of the damage was to older brick or stone buildings, many in the central part of Christchurch. In the suburbs, many houses were similarly damaged - more than 15,000 brick chimneys collapsed. There was also damage to infrastructure, including roads and older water and sewer pipes. In some areas there was liquefaction, resulting in shifting, sliding and sinking of land, including in some newer residential developments. Although most of this land can be “remediated”, and the houses rebuilt, tighter conditions may be imposed on such developments in the future.
The earthquake was also a test for New Zealand’s 2002 Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act, which adopted a new approach broadly consistent with the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action. This involves a national strategy using the ‘4 Rs’: Reduction, Readiness, Response and Recovery. Local civil defence and emergency management groups have a coordination role before, during and after natural disasters, including dealing with “lifeline” utilities such as power, water and telecommunications. This contributed positively to the Christchurch response.
Central government also reacted quickly, appointing a Minister with oversight responsibilities and establishing a Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Commission.
The Earthquake Commission - set up 60 years ago to provide earthquake cover for residential properties, plays a key role, including administering a Natural Disaster Fund which will meet much of the cost of damage to Christchurch homes.
Effective emergency management must be multi-dimensional - the 4 ‘Rs’ must interact and complement one another. Decisions made now on the way buildings are rebuilt or repaired will directly impact on future preparedness.
“Being ready” counts at every level - household, business, city, region and national.
To be ready, we must understand and manage the risk - this requires a solid foundation of science and research which informs policies and practices, including land use planning. This earthquake occurred on a previously unknown fault-line, a surprise to planners.
“Being ready” also requires public education, but involves more than just disseminating information: engagement is required. School programmes play an important role and can help improve preparedness levels in the broader community.
New Zealand is relatively well prepared, but can still do things better. The 2010 earthquake should be a wake-up call but a challenge now is to guard against complacency. The impression that things went well can seriously impact on-going resilience efforts.
We are also working on further integrating disaster risk reduction into our development programmes and recently announced a new, three-year commitment to broad-based disaster preparedness in the Pacific, particularly enhanced tsunami readiness in the South West Pacific. New Zealand also supports a new hazard mapping exercise in Samoa, including developing evacuation routes for coastal communities.
Disasters happen; we can’t prevent them, but New Zealand’s recent experience shows that we can take steps to reduce the impact and ensure those affected are prepared for quick recovery. That must be our objective.