Life on the West Coast of the Southern Alps

Life on the West Coast of the Southern Alps

As a disaster risk management professional, people often ask me how I rationalize my choice of living in one of New Zealand’s most hazard prone regions.

Well, for my family and me, it’s actually a fairly easy choice. Sure, the West Coast of the Southern Alps has one of the highest earthquake risks on the planet, it’s frequently flooded, the lifelines infrastructure is vulnerable, and it’s geographically isolated, but those facts are balanced by the opportunities for a uniquely rewarding and healthy lifestyle.

It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, though. When confronted with the fact that my family home, and my business, is located less than 30 km from the location where two of the world’s largest tectonic plates collide, there are some serious questions to be answered, before a truly educated decision can be made.

So, if risk = likelihood x consequence and opportunity = likelihood x benefit, the choice to live and work in this location can only be supported if a calculated level of opportunity is greater than the calculated risk. Simple. But is it?

We know the likelihood of a major rupture along the Alpine fault (where the Pacific and Australasian plates collide) is 30% in 50 years, or 0.6% per year. And the consequences of that are unquestionably severe. I am expecting that our home will be destroyed, power may be interrupted for 6 weeks (to six months!), road travel in and out of the region may not be possible for a few weeks, and we may have to deal with physical and psychological injuries…

In comparison with other areas of the country, the risk of disruption due to the earthquake hazard is very high. However, the risk of interruption due to issues such as violent crime is very low.

On the flip side of the risk/opportunity coin, we can enjoy a high degree of confidence that my family will benefit from the beautiful natural surroundings, supportive community atmosphere, freedom of space, access to wild places, affordable real estate, world class outdoor sports, clean air, clean water, happy people with a general feeling of grounded belonging, and an unfaltering optimism in the business community. Now, some of these qualities are a direct result of the aforementioned isolation and hazardscape, but that does not affect the risk or opportunity calculation. It merely reinforces the confidence we have on a positive local reaction to a major natural catastrophe, such as an Alpine fault rupture.

For us (my family and my business), the criteria for risk acceptance is influenced heavily by the value we place in the benefits we can see in our everyday existence of life on the West Coast of the Southern Alps. This value is huge. Because of this, we are able to justify the high (compared to other regions of the country) degree of exposure to natural hazards.

Having said that, it’s not a decision that is made and then forgotten. The forces that created this beautiful place are the very forces that constantly threaten to adversely affect our lives and business. We are constantly reminded that preparedness for the inevitable is an essential part of a sensible existence. Even my 3 year old son knows that if the ground moves, he needs to drop, cover and hold!

Similarly, we are often confronted with surprising situations: floods exceed the level that we ever predicted, the coastline erodes, but some river valleys aggrade, cyclones strike in areas we never expected, drought(!), and industrial disasters, sending waves of disruption through the community.

To some people, these surprises are enough to weigh the risk/opportunity comparison towards a decision to live in a more stable environment. But for us, we believe that these surprises serve only to encourage, and indeed enable, our capacity to adapt to new circumstances. With this training in adaptive capacity and the opportunities for active, healthy living and prosperous business opportunities the decision to accept the risk of natural hazards is a no-brainer.

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