Two ‘one in a 100 year’ floods within six years is not bad luck, it is a wakeup call to bring our environmental prediction and monitoring up to the task

Opinion: The 2017 ‘Tasman Tempest’ was a warning of what was to come. More than 300 Auckland homes flooded, and there were flash floods, landslides, and power outages. It broke 40-year-old records and caused a one in 100-year rain event in Hunua.

We are no more prepared now for the climate changes that are upon us. The 2023 floods that destroyed hundreds of houses and sunk massive infrastructure are yet another urgent warning.

New Zealand needs to rethink how we receive, analyse and communicate fundamental information from the start of planning to coordination of government agencies and emergency management. This requires cooperation – not competition – between government, academic, industry and community agencies. It could mean consolidating public-good functions of key agencies that share common missions and responsibilities.

Desley the deputy steps into the breach
Auckland’s historic flooding explained in five charts
* The Auckland floods are a sign of things to come

We have now experienced the consequences of information wormholes. Auckland failed its residents in warning and preparing them for the life-threatening floods. The emerging clarity of hindsight reveals that information – or lack of it – can mean life or death and severe economic impact.

For the inevitable next disaster, we need institutions that provide and share information that anticipates, prepares and helps to manage a large-scale emergency for emergency and civic leaders and to empower individuals with information they can act on. This requires a redesign of how this information is retrieved, analysed and disseminated, for the emergency responses and for planning processes for the future.

Timely warnings before disasters are only one part of the much-needed information matrix. Technology can provide a dashboard of information related to water levels and water pressure that can help to prevent the catastrophes we saw in Onehunga and on the motorways.

Equipped with the right information, a controller in an office with real-time CCTV footage could push a button to open sluice gates to help mitigate floods. That controller, like the public, can only act if accurate information is shared by the right communication structure, whether social media, public broadcaster, or specialist information networks.

Slowly evolving environmental disasters that gradually reach their tipping point require the same preparations. Monitoring slow, almost imperceptible degradation and erosion of the landscape, vegetation and coastal environments means agencies and communities affected can prevent problems before catastrophes happen.

We need a highly functioning, collaborative system, and this requires reimagining the public service sector. The place to start is with the creation of credible monitoring and warning systems

Planners, engineers, land-use managers, builders, and architects need to know what is happening beneath the surface before construction. This can be known, in part, by satellite data. In parts of Europe thousands of slopes are being monitored by satellites, recording change in the rate of speed the slopes move. That information is available to any engineer, planner or member of council to guide decisions about the types of structures (if any) may be safe for those locations.

The information also serves as an early warning system for people to evacuate or make other structural decisions before a landslide occurs. This satellite data already exists, as does the expertise to analyse and translate it for New Zealand, but there is a lack of support to put it into practice.

In an age of unpredictability, accurate real-time weather-related information must be shared, between agencies and with the public, not treated as proprietary or commercially held. Withholding public-good knowledge for commercial advantage or leaving it unavailable because of a lack of resourcing represents a lost opportunity to save lives and property.

Automatic information-sharing between agencies with some overlapping or related responsibilities, such as Niwa, GNS, ESR, Landcare, MetService, and other industry operators, provides the spine for shared information that would lead to a more coordinated approach and response to mitigate and manage emergencies.

On the flip side, burdening existing Crown-supported environmental service organisations with commercial imperatives on public services or forcing competition through funding hampers coordinated delivery of vital information and services.

Many of our public service science entities operate with commercial measures of success and the need to compete for funding, impeding the coordinated delivery of vital information and services.

Commercial incentives breed behaviour incompatible with the public interest. Instead of cooperating and sharing information, commercial imperatives, and competition lead to the need to prove worthiness for funding and making a profit. The result can be withholding information or cooperation, which can stymie responsibilities to keep the public safe.

Two “one in a 100 year” floods within six years is not bad luck, it is a wakeup call to bring our environmental prediction and monitoring up to the task.  

We need a highly functioning, collaborative system, and this requires reimagining the public service sector. The place to start is with the creation of credible monitoring and warning systems that deliver the urgent information needed to help save lives and property, and enable preparations to enhance resilience in our people, industries, and land use.

This information also needs to be acted on. To do so will inevitably require tough decision-making by whānau, communities, and local and central government when assessing where and how our homes and workplaces can safely be placed and constructed. But it must be done for the sake of protecting our collective wellbeing.

Maria Armoudian and David Noone are directors of Ngā Ara Whetū – Centre for Climate, Biodiversity & Society.

Martin Brook is a chartered geologist and director of the Master of Engineering Geology degree, School of Environment, Faculty of Science, University of Auckland.

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