This is due in no small part to our location in the South Pacific, position on a plate boundary and increased risk of severe weather events from climate change. Not only that, but much of our infrastructure lacks redundancy because of unforgiving terrain and a relatively thin population distribution.
Parts of Wellington’s transport system being closed by frequent extreme weather events, closure of Auckland Harbour Bridge due to high winds, closure of the main arterial spine highway and railway for many months to over a year when the transport corridor was devastated by the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, and power and fuel disruptions in Auckland are just a few examples of how vulnerable our infrastructure is.
But with the right proactive thinking, these and other pieces of vulnerable infrastructure dotted around the country don’t have to stay that way.
The silver lining of major projects and disaster recovery
It’s not every day that major projects that enhance the capacity of New Zealand’s transport, water, electricity and other infrastructure networks are considered, much less built. When they are, it’s usually in response to capacity and safety constraints associated with population growth, or in response to natural disasters that have severely damaged existing infrastructure.
These kinds of events and big-ticket projects are ideal opportunities to infuse transformational resilience into our lifeline infrastructure. But gaining an understanding of the resilience is a vital precursor.
The OECD sees resilient infrastructure as an economic opportunity - noting how it can absorb the impacts of adverse shocks and help us prepare for future risks. Around the world, optimising existing infrastructure assets and building new resilient infrastructure has been a post-pandemic focus for many countries, including New Zealand. But for some of our regions it’s really nothing new.
Wellington and Tauranga lead the way
A useful case study is Wellington, which made a huge effort in understanding the resilience of its transport networks in the first decade of this millennium. In 2007, when a new route for Transmission Gully route was mooted, initially for capacity and safety reasons, resilience was front and centre of planning discussions.
Resilience was elevated as a key project objective, for the first time on a major project. That early focus on resilience meant changes were made to Transmission Gully to maximise resilience – changes that considered functionality and quick recovery should a natural disaster strike. Thanks to this, Wellington has had transformational improvements to its transport resilience.
Fast forward to 2022 when a modest storm event in August closed the pre-existing state highway (which was once the only major access from the north) for three weeks. The Transmission Gully route provided more secure and robust access. This is a shining example of how foundational resilience studies and an early focus on resilience can be transformative.
Building for resilience has now become a hallmark of many of Wellington’s transport projects. We know from Wellington’s experience that resilience in planning infrastructure is best considered as an independent objective - that way, those involved can test the planned development and make sure resilience considerations don’t get watered down. A sustained focus on resilience through a project’s life cycle is also important to make sure any early wins aren’t lost in procurement and construction.
A great example in the water sector is in Tauranga. Like Wellington, Tauranga has invested in understanding its natural hazards and infrastructure resilience. As the rapidly growing city faces the need to expand its infrastructure, resilience considerations have become a hallmark of the development of strategies to develop its water and wastewater infrastructure.
There are many opportunities to make transformational enhancements to infrastructure in other regions. Take Auckland, our biggest city, where socio-economic functionality relies on critical infrastructure such as the Auckland Harbour Bridge and other water and power lifelines. Understanding the resilience of its infrastructure, not just to natural hazards but also operational incidents, is paramount as the city contemplates major transport, water and wastewater investments.
Marlborough and Northland are grappling with the aftermath of severe storm events, which have crippled key transport routes. For far too long, we have responded to crippling damage by patching up the individual sections, without taking a strategic system-wide look at the resilience issues and needs. Understanding the resilience of their infrastructure will help local decision-makers take a strategic approach to investments in recovery - taking into consideration the changing nature and return period of hazards.
Rail and water networks need major investment in many parts of the country. If our regions are to make inroads into cutting carbon emissions from private car use, they need resilient (and reliable) public transport corridors that encourage mode shift and keep the economic wheels turning. Ditto for safe, secure water services.
Novelist George Orwell once wrote that ‘our civilisation is haunted by the notion that the quickest way of doing anything is invariably the best’. He could almost have been talking about how New Zealand needs to deliver infrastructure more efficiently and build better for resilience.
There’s a crying need to better understand the resilience of our infrastructure, not just around existing earthquake, storm and volcanic hazards, but also climate change hazards of sea level rise, flooding and more frequent landslides. While sea level rise may take some years and requires planning for adaptation, landslides and flooding from more frequent and extreme weather events are already on a roll.
There’s some excellent research underway in this space. Engineering experts from WSP are part of the Government-funded Resilience to Nature's Challenges and Endeavour programmes, which aim to increase understanding of Aotearoa’s hazards and create more resilient communities and infrastructure.
It’s programmes like these, alongside an early focus on resilience in major project development and recovery from natural disasters, that will let us make transformational improvements to our infrastructure.
Dollars and cents
You may think that building for resilience comes with a hefty price tag, but you’d be surprised. The transformative enhancements of Wellington’s Transmission Gully expressway not only came at no additional cost over that already planned but offered savings through the focus on resilience. We’ve seen this in other projects too – including the new Ferrymead Bridge in Christchurch and Remutaka Hill Realignment at Muldoon’s Corner.
Engineers, planners and hazards researchers are at the sharp end of building for transformative resilience. Our challenge now is to help society grasp the importance of developing resilient infrastructure that can withstand changing conditions and recover quickly from the shocks and stresses we know keep coming.