Are we any more resilient, a decade on from the Canterbury earthquakes?

Are we any more resilient, a decade on from the Canterbury earthquakes?

By Land Damage Project Director, Nick Rogers

On 4 September 2010 an unknown and unnamed fault, hidden beneath hundreds of metres of gravel under the Canterbury Plains, ruptured. This rupture producing some of the largest levels of earthquake shaking in a major city in most of our collective living memory and disrupted the lives of thousands of Cantabrians. This was thought to be the “big one” that government and insurers had been planning for, albeit not the one expected. The long overdue Alpine Fault rupture was the known…but clearly not the lone wolf that GNS had been saying was coming. No sooner had people managed to correctly pronounce “liquefaction” and downloaded the GeoNet earthquake app onto their smart phones, than another word popped into the lexicon: Resilience.

As stated by then MP for Christchurch East, and now Mayor of Christchurch Lianne Dalziel, “resilience is about the capacity to plan and prepare for adversity, the ability to absorb the impact and recover quickly, but more importantly it’s about the ability as a community to adapt to a new environment, to thrive in the face of adversity and co-create a new normal.”

Then came another smaller but more destructive earthquake… and then more earthquakes… a whole pack of wolves, and thousands of aftershocks that continued for years. Surviving, rather than thriving, seemed to be the new normal. Much of the above ground, built environment and below ground horizontal infrastructure not only sustained considerable damage but took a long time to rebuild. Building back better occurred in some places. Other places were abandoned. Build in better places has become the new EQC mantra. Many people, however, have still not “recovered”.

Resilience is universally understood to be a ‘good’ concept. Any number of corporate and government documents refer to the need to be ‘resilient’. Improving the ability to prevent, withstand, or respond to, disruption is objectively desirable. However, people are clearly getting sick and tired of being told to be resilient. Since the CES we have had the Kaikōura earthquake, the Christchurch Mosque massacres, Whakaari/White Island eruption and now the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter has introduced the oxymoron, social distancing! Our resilience to shocks, not sufficiently planned for, is again being tested.

Over a short space of time the shocks have morphed from natural hazards to dangerous people – terrorists such as the Alt Right. With COVID-19 we are now a threat to one another. This reinforces the most important aspect of resilience, the need to adapt. Moving in and out of lockdown levels has shown just how adaptable we can be to a rapidly changing external environment. So, 10 years on the built environment is becoming demonstrably more resilient.  Lessons are being learned about how to better resist and manage shocks from natural hazards. Whether we, as communities, are more resilient to external threats is less clear. Are we any better in overcoming adversity than our parents, or grandparents? Probably not.

In looking at resilience we should be expending considerably more effort on creating a future in which we are less dependent. This may mean more dwellings being wholly or partly off-grid. Being well prepared does not mean being able to withstand any event. Being well prepared means knowing what to do, what our individual roles and responsibilities are, and what response is expected from the wider community. We need to be as independent as possible, but as well-connected as possible.  Less direct contact might be a new normal. At some point being traceable will probably be a necessity. One of many adaptation pills that many will find difficult to swallow.

However, in looking at resilience we need to look beyond human adaptation to external shocks and look at the stresses that threaten not only our future wellbeing but that of the natural environment.  We seem to be unwilling or unable to act before disaster strikes. Adopting a simpler, low carbon future way of living will be a lot less traumatic and a lot more certain, than adapting to rising temperatures and sea levels, with the very real possibility of an associated global economic collapse and the disintegration of civil society as a know it. This is the real resilience challenge ahead of us.

Nick Rogers (QSO), Senior Geotechnical Engineer, Tonkin + Taylor