Tremor-prone city still cautious in wake of deadly 2011 quake

Wed, Aug 15, 2012, 01:00

A country that endures about 20,000 earthquakes every year must take plenty of time to rebuild

IN THE aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch that killed 181 people, the New Zealand government bought and freighted in 960 portable toilets. As many again were hired overseas, with almost 2,000 on the city’s destroyed streets at one point.

Christchurch’s sewage system has largely been replaced now, and just 75 portable toilets remain in service. The rented ones have been returned and some others have been damaged beyond use, but more than 800 sit in neat rows on a site in the suburb of Sockburn, waiting for their fate to be decided.

Christchurch is in no hurry to get rid of them. Many of the toilets were back in service following major aftershocks last December 23rd.

The city’s caution is wise. New Zealand gets about 20,000 earthquakes every year. While we were there, a 7.0-magnitude quake struck the North Island (Christchurch is on the South Island), followed by a 4.6-magnitude aftershock nine minutes later. Though it was the biggest earthquake to strike the Taranaki region in 120 years, the area is sparsely populated, so little damage was done and there were no casualties.

With tremors a constant fact of New Zealand life, it is no wonder many Cantabrians (the demonym for people from Christchurch) are self-medicating to cope with the pressure. Paul Rout, of Christchurch’s Alcohol Drug Association, told the Press newspaper that “steady stress over time” is beginning to take a toll. Thousands have called the association’s helpline since early last year; most were seeking help for their own alcohol or drug dependency, but many were worried about family or friends.

“It takes about 18 months until we start to see real mental health problems,” Mr Rout said. “We’re getting to that point now where some of that initial resilience is wearing out.”

The latest available figures show the Christchurch population fell by 8,900 (2.4 per cent) after the earthquake, meaning the capital, Wellington, overtook it as New Zealand’s second-biggest city after Auckland.

With government and other investors set to spend NZ$20 billion (€13.09 billion) on rebuilding Christchurch over the next five years (the equivalent of almost 1.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product), it is hoped the population will soon start to recover.

The blueprint for how the reconstructed city will look has just been issued. The plans show a compact, low-rise central business district, with separate retail, sporting and cultural precincts, all surrounded by open green space.

Before work can start, however, land has to be acquired from about 800 owners. Though the government has the power to compulsorily acquire land, the earthquake recovery minister, Gerry Brownlee, is hopeful this will not be necessary. “We’ve tried to be very fair with all our land dealings to this point and we will continue along that particular line,” he said.

Land swaps, outright purchases and arrangements for people to use their land differently are among the options available, he said.

Despite the construction jobs being created, New Zealand’s overall unemployment rate rose from 6.7 to 6.8 per cent in the second quarter of this year. Though this is a figure Ireland and many other countries would love to have, prime minister John Key recently visited Australia to encourage trans-Tasman investment.

“Our government needs to create jobs . . . but in the end we need you to invest and take some risks by putting your investments in New Zealand,” he told a business lunch in Sydney.

Having won re-election last November, Mr Key’s National Party-led government recently passed legislation to partially privatise billions of dollars’ worth of state-owned energy assets. Using previously passed legislation it will also reduce its 76 per cent stake in Air New Zealand to 51 per cent.

Minister for state-owned enterprises Tony Ryall told parliament: “It’s part of a wider plan to reduce debt and keep investing in the New Zealand economy. There are some people who think the global financial crisis is over; they don’t understand the relentlessly worsening international financial situation,” he said.

“Unless we control our debt . . . then New Zealand is at risk of being seen by international lenders on a par with other countries that are losing control of their destiny.”

The sell-offs are expected to raise between $5 billion and $7 billion dollars, which will be spent on infrastructure projects.

Though preferential treatment will be given to New Zealand investors, Mr Key is hopeful the asset sales will bring international investment into the country. “We think we will see a reasonable amount of foreign interest,” he said, “particularly from Australian funds who manage funds on behalf of New Zealanders”.

Though not everyone is happy with the asset sales, firm action such as this and his handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake is the reason Mr Key was re-elected last November.