Mataura was built on the principle that the Mataura River knew its place. It flowed into the north end of town, that long straggle of houses that began somewhere around Cardigan Bay Road, wiggling slightly between stop banks. Once it entered the narrow chute between the freezing works on the west bank and the paper mill on the east, the river’s job was to take the waste of blood and bone and paper-making chemicals and carry it, swiftly and efficiently, downriver past the paper mill social club, under Bridge St, and out to the sea at Fortrose.
Mostly, the river obliged. But not always.
We moved to Mataura in 1969. Dad, despite his love of outdoors work, had had a gutsful of the Fisheries Department bureaucracy. Returning to his old work as a wages clerk. The paper mill management must have known something, because the paper mill houses were well above the river, curled along Culling Terrace on the steep hill that rose to the east of the river.
Mataura, a poor town in a rich province. A town of industry: paper mill, freezing works, dairy factory even before the dairy boom. Industry was the future, plainly: down on the South Coast, the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter had recently opened. Huge multinationals wanted to come to Southland!
Because my home wasn’t at risk, I regarded the 1972 Mataura River flood as something of an adventure. Thirteen-year-old Tim, so full of confidence, armed with the lofty maturity of the fourth form (Year 10) at Gore High. It was a Sunday. Dad had been called in to help protect the mill. I remember looking over the flooded town and thinking it was all very sad, but how cool would it be to sneak past the barricades, splash my way up Kana St to the paper mill, and take a first-hand look at the sandbagging efforts? Maybe I could help out.
I had a white lab coat from school. Surely wearing that would signal I was on official business. I left the house and got much closer to my destination than I expected, striding with purpose between pools of the now-receding water: thankfully, not far enough for Dad to discover me. Eventually, I was stopped and told to go home. The mill was saved. The river returned to its appointed place within its stop-banks.
The big flood of October 1978 was a whole different story. By then, we no longer lived a safe distance uphill. My parents had bought a house on the Mataura River floodplain, halfway between Mataura and Gore. I was off at Otago University, but that week, I happened to be home.
Seen close up – from the crumbling banks of a torrent you need to cross to get out of the bush, from a car threatening to aquaplane as it hits an unexpected flow of water across the road – a flood is an awe-inspiring thing: the usual tranquillity of water transformed to violence, the same force that ripped open the Martian canyons and the scablands of Washington State, that saw Cyclone Gabrielle turn northern Aotearoa into a disaster zone in early 2023. But at our house, a kilometre or so from the river’s bed, it was the inexorability of the 1978 flood, its slow rising, that felt most threatening. All around us the waters rose, turning fields to lakes.
If it kept raining in the headwaters, near Lake Wakatipu, the water would keep rising. If it stopped, we had a chance, for our house stood on a slight, almost imperceptible rise. It takes about 60 hours for floodwaters to make their way down the Mataura to the sea. We waited. The waters rose, slowly, then stopped rising, a few inches below the level that would have flooded the house. The front lawn was a marsh, but that was okay – it made our pet duck Milly happy.
It’s the water all around our perimeter I remember: grey, still, waiting. At last, reluctantly, it slunk away.
We were lucky. But all over the South, up and down the Mataura River catchment and elsewhere, many others weren’t. Gore Hospital patients had to be evacuated. Three-quarters of Mataura’s population were moved out, 90 percent of Mataura properties were affected, and a flood at the paper mill swept away recycled paper. The mill filled with water up to two metres deep in places.
In Kelso, a little further north, the floodwater reached the eaves of houses. The town was abandoned two years later, after yet another flood.
At Tiwai Point, the aluminium smelter kept churning out aluminium, and the toxic waste that goes with it. Eventually, they’d have to find somewhere else to store it.
All my life, Mataura has been living in Nature’s shooting gallery. But as the climate warms and the weather gets more extreme – drier, hotter, wetter, wilder – more and more of us are in the firing line
After the 1978 floods, everyone agreed that something would have to be done about flood protection. New stop-banks were installed, and for a time, they did their job. But Rogernomics put paid to central government support for flood protection, while the conversion of huge swathes of Southland farmland to dairying did more damage to the awa than freezing works and paper mill waste ever had. Meanwhile, the world burned fossil fuels and the climate warmed. Warmer air can carry more moisture, which then falls as harder rain.
Gradually, as the statutory role of Hokonui Rūnanga in relation to the awa was acknowledged, discharges to the river were brought under better control and the tuna and kanakana – those eels and lampreys the Mataura River used to be known for – began to return.
I moved north, then north again. I became a writer, floods frequently rising through my words, as in my new novel, Emergency Weather. Dad retired from the paper mill, though they kept finding reasons to call him back in. In 2000, aged and unloved by its corporate owners, the paper mill, established in 1875, closed its doors.
The empty buildings went, quite literally, to waste. Rio Tinto, the giant multinational mining company, and its partners in the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter had been casting about for somewhere to store their toxic waste in the form of ouvea premix, which, when wet, releases toxic ammonia gas. Where better than the old Mataura paper mill, down by the river? Mataura is a poor town by Southland standards, a working-class town, a town prone to voting Labour in the midst of National’s heartland. And it wouldn’t be stored there forever – the mill was just a stopgap solution until a better one was found. It was all pretty legal.
The toxic waste was moved in quietly by night in 2014 – 10,000 tonnes before locals found out. The community was outraged, but wherever they turned, it always seemed to be someone else’s responsibility. The third-party company that had moved the smelter waste in went bust. It was market forces in action – what could anyone do? Eventually, a deal was reached to remove the waste over a three-year period.
In February 2020, the Mataura River flooded again. Residents in Mataura were evacuated, as well as residents in Wyndham, the next town downstream. To the risk of flooding was added the risk that the water would reach the bags of smelter waste, that clouds of toxic gas would roll out across the town. Frantic work went on to shore up the old mill’s defences and prevent water flooding the toxic waste from Tiwai Point.
It worked – just. The water was kept at bay. The residents had kept on speaking up, and now they could no longer be ignored. The near miss was enough for a deal to be reached and the waste to be moved away from the old mill, away from the river – though the problem had been moved, not solved.
All my life, Mataura has been living in Nature’s shooting gallery. But as the climate warms and the weather gets more extreme – drier, hotter, wetter, wilder – more and more of us are in the firing line. The cyclone, fuelled by warming seas, that sweeps across your city. The forest slash that slides across the highway at just the wrong time. The exotic forest that, dry and windswept, ignites from a single spark. Beneath it all, the rising of the sea, starting slow and growing faster, raising the baseline of storms.
Papatūānuku isn’t to blame. We’re in the world made by the fossil fuel companies, by industrial dairying, by the accumulation of capital at the expense of everything else. Will we act to save ourselves, like the people of Mataura acted, or will we shut our eyes and pretend the danger is not real? Emergency weather is now on every doorstep.
Emergency Weather, the new novel by Tim Jones (Cuba Press, $38), is available in bookstores nationwide. The book’s synopsis: “Three people find themselves in Wellington as the climate crisis crashes into their lives. A giant storm is on its way – what will be left of the city when it’s over?”