Preparing for the worst

What if you turned on the tap and there was no water? What if the Auckland harbour bridge collapsed, or the supermarkets ran out of food?

Data & Decisions


Long-term planning

7 min read

Photography iStock

Buying public infrastructure is like buying a car – there are many options. Am I better off buying new, or spending money on what I already have? And what size car do I really need?

Infrastructure decisions are too expensive to get wrong. At every step in the planning, building and operation we can save, or lose, many millions of dollars depending on the decisions that are made.

These are shaky islands. Most New Zealanders know that we live with the threat of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But we also face an increasing risk of challenges like coastal erosion, more and bigger landslides, floods and droughts. Making sure that our infrastructure is ready for these shocks and stresses is good insurance for our wellbeing.

We only plan for what we know

We tend to plan for events we’re most familiar with, but we need to think beyond this to be ready for what tomorrow might hold. Some events, like extreme volcanic eruptions, happened so long ago that we only know about them through oral or written history or from geologists. But just because they haven’t happened in our recent past doesn’t mean they won’t be a part of our future. For example, based on history we know that there is a very high likelihood of a catastrophic earthquake from the Alpine Fault in the next 50 years.  

At the same time, other threats are new and growing, like the risk posed by cyberattacks with our heavy reliance on technology and the internet. Climate change will bring more extreme weather events causing more frequent and bigger floods, droughts and landslides – and some of these will be bigger than our roading, power and other networks have been built for. Most of our cities and wastewater plants are built near the sea, so a lot of public infrastructure must adapt or shift to cope with coastal erosion and storm surges. 

On top of this, it is difficult to repair and rebuild our infrastructure quickly when it is damaged by a natural disaster. We may not have enough trained people, and there’s a real need to make sure we can maintain access to the supplies and materials we need to rebuild.   

"It is difficult to repair and rebuild our infrastructure quickly when it is damaged by a natural disaster. We may not have enough trained people, and there’s a real need to make sure we can maintain access to the supplies and materials we need to rebuild."

We should plan better… and further ahead

The better we understand the risks and plan how to address them, the stronger our society and economy can be. This information is important not just for public infrastructure, but for individuals as well – giving us the tools to know where we should and shouldn’t build and how to prepare ourselves, our homes and our communities to cope with future disasters. 

Source: Adapted from Geonet (2021)

Source: Adapted from Geonet (2021)

There’s work to do to not only gather this information but share it too, making sure everyone who manages our infrastructure has the same understanding of the risks we face.  

We also need to have a clear view of the supply chains and infrastructure that we can’t afford to be without – the parts that are most important to protect or get up and running again if things go wrong. Currently we lack a shared understanding of this critical infrastructure, which could slow down or confuse our ability to recover from a major disaster. Identifying this critical infrastructure is best practice internationally, and an important first step toward setting some minimum standards for what we need in a disaster: the water supplies to get by, the essential transport links, the medical facilities to treat the injured. It means we can make sure we have the resources to maintain these and prioritise our recovery work. 

Our communities, our economy and our way of life are as vulnerable as our infrastructure. Our choice is whether this holds us back or helps to build us up in the event of the worst.

Some of the changes we’ll need to make

Sadly, New Zealand has plenty of experience of dealing with natural disasters. Preparing for the future means learning from this, anticipating new risks and taking a shared and consistent approach. 

The New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy explores some of the changes we’ll need to make, and these include: 

  • Greater sharing of information about the whole range of threats we face, so decision makers and others can get a full picture of the level of risk for our infrastructure. 
  • A shared view of what our most critical infrastructure is and the minimum services we need from it in the event of a disaster. 

How can we better prepare our infrastructure for events like earthquakes and floods?

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