Rubble and damaged buildings lining a deserted Colombo Street in Christchurch on February 23, 2011, following an earthquake (Photo: Logan McMillan/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s not only engineers who have a stake in engineering a better New Zealand

A new report from Engineering New Zealand focuses on how to respond to two key infrastructure challenges: seismic resilience and water supply. Introducing the report, the organisation’s CEO argues that everyone has a stake in a more resilient country.

Engineers prefer practical action to the media spotlight but this week they’re stepping outside their comfort zones. After many months and much expert wrangling, Engineering New Zealand has launched a fresh look at seismic resilience and water.

This isn’t just another report. As an outsider coming into this role, I’ve seen how integral engineers’ problem-solving and practical experience is to solving the challenges we face.

Engineers’ vision for the future is one you probably share. Resilient, prepared communities that can roll with seismic punches. Buildings and infrastructure that not only survive earthquakes but still work afterwards. Drinking water you can trust. A sensible, planned approach to more frequent storms and flooding.

Even if we all agree that’s what we want for our future, it won’t happen unless we do things differently. And we means engineers, building and infrastructure owners, councils, government – and you. Communities are both the most powerful and the weakest link in our resilience chain. If communities stay reactive and don’t look ahead, then our political decision-makers have little incentive to drive difficult change.

That’s why Engineering a Better New Zealand is for everyone, not just those sitting in the Beehive or Council chambers. Everyone has a stake in a more resilient New Zealand, as Christchurch people know all too well. Resilience is more than a concept. It takes tangible form when the unexpected hits, especially for the people in our society least able to cope.

If we’re serious about building resilience, we need to talk differently about risk. Too often we have a black and white, binary mindset: safe or not safe. But our world is more complex than that. No engineer can tell you whether a building is “safe”. But they can tell you how it’s likely to perform under certain conditions. They can help you understand the level of risk that particular building poses. This isn’t a cop out: it’s the reality of predicting the performance of that unique, potentially complex structure.

So instead of talking about safety, let’s talk about risk we can and can’t live with. Risk isn’t about short-term probability. The big one probably won’t happen tomorrow. But we know it will happen sometime. It might be unpredictable but it won’t be a surprise. If we accept that, we can make informed decisions together. If we don’t open our eyes to obvious risks, then we are left picking up the pieces, as we saw in Genoa this week.

We need to up our game in terms of existing buildings in cities. If a building is sitting there, not earthquake prone, but with some kind of flaw or a feature that we’ve learned is problematic in severe earthquakes, for example, how do we make sure it’s fixed? Who’s responsible for buildings that fit this scenario? No engineer wants to see a CTV Building happen again, where one flawed building is responsible for a huge proportion of an earthquake’s fatalities. This isn’t a risk we want to live with.

We also need to look beyond the earthquake. At the moment, engineers design buildings so that people can evacuate after a moderate earthquake. This is what the Building Code specifies. But if we want a resilient New Zealand, we need to think more about the economic shock created if we can’t occupy a large number of buildings. Do we want buildings to be more than “single use”? If we do, what kind of incentives or regulation do we need? Engineers want the conversation to be about thriving afterwards, as well as surviving.

Engineers are at the heart of our water systems, in the same way they are designing buildings and responding to earthquakes. There’s no shortage of conversation about water at the moment, which is a very healthy change. Our voice joins others, including the Government’s, calling for fundamental change to our broken drinking-water system.

People are used to trusting the water from their tap. Conversations about risk can seem new or even needless to our communities. But 100,000 New Zealanders are getting sick every year because of their drinking water. Havelock North demonstrated the real risks of not treating drinking water. We know we haven’t done a good job of communicating those risks when people fixate on the taste of chlorine rather than the protection it provides.

Treating water with a residual disinfectant like chlorine isn’t enough but it’s a start. We need a system with multiple barriers, and we need to deal with our aging water infrastructure. What we’re talking about isn’t cheap. If we don’t appreciate the risk and we don’t value drinking water, those two factors together stymie investment.

Flooding is another area where existing, aging infrastructure and new development can create a perfect storm. And we know that flooding will become more frequent as our climate changes. Let’s acknowledge this – and make hard decisions now about where communities are located, rather than bury our heads in the short-term sand.

We all want a more resilient New Zealand. Let’s talk more about how we can make it happen together: communities, leaders, regulators and engineers. Because, having put their heads above the parapet with this report, engineers are going to keep them there and keep the conversation going.

I’ve been in this role for three-and-a-half years, and members still tell me how disappointed they were that the engineering voice didn’t speak up loudly after the Canterbury earthquakes. They tell me how much they want the public to see the amazing potential of engineering, how it can transform our communities and our future, and how it holds some of the answers to the challenges we face.

Our mission is to engineer better lives for New Zealanders – and we take that seriously.

Read the full report

Susan Freeman-Greene is the chief executive of Engineering New Zealand

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