Environment – Re-prioritising, not just rebuilding

Last month I wrote about the value of electric light. I wrote from the luxury of my sunny South Island campsite. It all seems a bit ironic now, because that hot sun was actually the third South Island drought in three years, and those warm seas were from a marine heatwave that has left Fiordland and West Coast ocean temperatures up to six degrees warmer than average.

We were unaffected by Cyclone Hale in the deep south, though as we travelled up the country we encountered the storm that flooded Auckland, killed four people and left much of Coromandel inaccessible. We drove through scary submerged roads but made it home safely. Our town centre was under water, local villages were cut off, our place was sodden, but safe.

Now, after Cyclone Gabrielle, my friends, neighbours and family have been flooded again. Volunteer firefighter friends of friends have been killed trying to save people from landslides at Muriwai. The pictures of Hastings and Tairāwhiti deep in mud are hard to comprehend.

Not only do I really appreciate the value of electric light more than usual now, but also the power of power, of running water, of my home safe on a hillside above the flood, below the wind, with no terribly dangerous landslides to destroy my house or threaten it. Many of my friends are evacuated, their houses are damaged, unsafe, or currently being inspected, awaiting their fate.

The power company has other priorities, so it took a week before our electricity was restored. But I could still get water from my tank and run a generator to attend to basic hygiene – once the local gas station reopened. We’re lucky.

I think about the terror of having a mud tsunami through your home and valley; the deaths of babies, children, mums and dads. I think about the vulnerable infrastructure lifelines in the North Island that have been destroyed and left communities isolated.

I ride my bike everywhere, have a water tank and a vege garden, solar panels (that unfortunately are tied to the grid). But for all our personal attempts at self-sufficiency, resilience and to minimise our environmental footprint, these disasters show how vulnerable we all are, and how we have taken our standard of living and amenities for granted.

Those warming oceans lead to atmospheric rivers, worse cyclones, more loss. Nature bats last, and she bats hard. We haven’t got a moment to lose to appease and repair her. Prevention is better than cure.
Personal efforts are good for us, but not enough without action from governments to prevent worse. I don’t mean just rebuilding roads stronger, or bridges higher, I mean turning off the tap on climate emissions. Fonterra alone produces 19% of NZ’s emissions with little incentive to reduce them. Our government and those in other countries have to act on industrial climate pollution to save us all.