Urgent action needed on flood risk

01:42, Mar 12 2014
Nat Donovan and Leigh McGowan
HOW MANY TIMES: Nat Donovan and Leigh McGowan splash through the floodwaters in Maidstone Rd, Ilam, on February 12.

We are all heartily sick of it, aren't we? Whether disaster comes from the earth below or the sky above, nature delivers a powerful hit. We can expect more storms, floods, snow or even possibly another shake.

Authorities must act urgently to prevent or minimise potential damage from another disaster - now, before it happens, not in two years time, or after it is too late.

If the Christchurch City Council and the Government do not take bold steps to make our homes and communities as disaster-proof as possible, they are failing the people they were elected to serve.

Disaster prevention should be the No 1 priority - even to the extent of shelving other projects.

Urgent action is needed to avert or minimise flooding damage, by whatever means possible.

Steps might include pumping stations in low-lying areas, floodgates, dredging, diverting or modifying streams and rivers, and water retention schemes.


An even simpler measure is to have enough sandbags ready, as well as a clear plan.

If these steps are not taken, people will abandon even more neighbourhoods in Christchurch and with good reason. Property values will tumble. Why would you want to live in an area that floods?

An ounce of preparation is worth a ton of repair work.

Emergency services, council workers, and linesmen do a sterling job; the snarl-ups occur with the bureaucracies.

It is clear that we cannot rely entirely on EQC and insurance companies.

Many people in Christchurch now fear the drawn-out recovery process more than they do the initial disaster.

Insurance is already more expensive, with massive hikes in premiums and excesses.

It will certainly be harder to get payouts for flood damage in future, especially if you live in an area that has previously flooded.

It makes sense that we should make our homes and communities less prone to disaster in the first place. This should be in the insurance companies' own best interests because it will save them money in the long run. Unfortunately, logic does not seem to come in to it.

For example, it is well known which low-lying areas in Christchurch are most prone to flooding and also that land has sunk considerably in many areas after the earthquakes. Rising sea levels, due to climate change, are also a threat.

So when houses are repaired it should make sense to build them back with higher foundations to make them safer from flooding. However, EQC and insurance companies will not cover this, unless the house is being completely rebuilt. That decision - like initially refusing to allow extra insulation because it would be an "improvement" - is simply stupid.

Bureaucracies should be encouraging, not deterring better and safer buildings.

Building houses that are able to resist flooding, earthquakes and even hurricanes is certainly possible.

You can even have a floating house.

It is unrealistic, however, to expect homeowners - already contending with a severely unaffordable housing market - to replace their existing homes.

Power cuts are inevitable in a disaster.

They could be reduced, if not eliminated, by putting more power lines underground - but again that costs money. We need to rethink the cost-benefit equation.

So what can you do? Homebuyers should seek out the most disaster-resistant houses they can find and place rugged construction above superficially attractive features.

In miserable weather, the best thing to do is to stay warm and cosy inside. Efficient woodburners should be permitted. Having your own generator and rainwater storage tanks may help. Solar power also makes your house more independent.

Get an emergency kit. Many of us still have one handy, just in case.

Living on islands in the midst of the Roaring Forties, we can expect changeable weather in New Zealand, but recent extremes have been remarkable.

In the last month, we sweltered through the hottest day of summer, a real scorcher, when the mercury soared to 33 degrees Celsius. A week or so later the temperature plummeted to under 10C. We had a dramatic thunderstorm, two tornadoes in Canterbury and then extreme flooding.

Climate change will bring more extreme weather.

Many environmentalists are saying it is now too late to try to stop or slow down climate change, if it was ever possible. Although reducing air pollution will make our cities nicer (Chinese cities, for example, regularly experience some of the worst smog on the planet), it won't make a jot of difference to the Earth's climate.

All we can do is make human habitations more resilient, to try to ride out the worst that nature can hurl at us. That should be possible, but it will take a concerted and sustained effort by governments, local and national, businesses and individuals, working together.

Whatever happens, the mantra of "business as usual" no longer applies.

The Press