Cyclone Gabrielle: how did we get here and where to next?

23 February 2023

We have all watched with varying degrees of horror and sadness as first Auckland and then, a week later, the entire North Island suffered from catastrophic weather events and their aftermaths. 

I can’t help but think we were warned about this over two decades ago and that these events are a shocking example of climate change writ large, with more to come.  

‘Climate change, and specifically global warming, is not new. Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius posited that burning fossil fuels would add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere resulting in a ‘greenhouse effect’ (anthropogenic climate change) in an essay in 1896. ‘Global warming’ came into the public domain in a paper by Wallace Broecker published in the magazine Science in 1975. Source – John Walton Feb 18 2023

Critical infrastructure left wanting

My strategic hat tells me that this is a crisis for individuals and businesses that will rewrite the way we consider the basics such as reliability of power, water, food, sewerage systems, stormwater and fuel supplies.

The impact on communications is also significant. Our mobile phone and data networks rely on power to stay up. Battery backups are designed to maintain mobile transmission towers for a few hours until a service crew can arrive – not to keep systems up for days if not weeks without power. 

This starts with our national grid and the local lines distribution network that delivers power directly to our homes and businesses. All these need to be designed and upgraded for greater resilience and higher availability. The issue here is that this costs a lot of money, time and resources.

For example, imagine that you are a lines company operator in a flood or storm damaged area like Hawke’s Bay or Northland. Your regional population is, say, thirty thousand people and you are faced with a bill of $100 million dollars to restore, repair and then bring your power systems up to the regulated standards of reliability and availability. 

The cost to do this is $3,333 per head of population or roughly $10,000 per household.

Next, you are a water company in the same region whose filtration, pump and pipe infrastructure is also in poor shape. Water infrastructure funding is not my bulwark but it’s fair to say that $50 million would go some way to solving the problem in this example.

That’s another $1,666 per head or roughly $5,000 per household.

Crisis will rewrite the future

The problem will only get worse over time if the climate scientists and weather forecasters are to be believed. Just fixing the damage today might not solve the problem tomorrow.

Any city or town in New Zealand could find themselves staring down the barrel of rates increases, electricity lines charge increases and in many cases increases in water rates at a time where employment and economic growth are by no means guaranteed. 

In the meantime the power goes out, the drains leak and our drinking  water quality is questionable, while all the time our elected politicians local and central fiddle while Rome drowns.

Cyclone Gabriel is conservatively estimated to have cost the country $13 billion in repair costs alone. 

If, as I believe, we can expect more and worsening climate destruction, we will have to build in some resilience to our infrastructure networks – and fast.

*Part two of this series addresses the after effects of Cyclone Gabrielle and will look at the options for more available and reliable power for businesses and the rural economy. 

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