Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have caused havoc around the world this year. Yet New Zealand, whose position on the Ring of Fire makes it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, seems oddly unprepared.
The fault line between the Australian and Pacific plates runs down the centre of New Zealand, taking in the country’s capital Wellington. Auckland, meanwhile, is built on an active volcanic field. The likelihood of a catastrophic event in a major city is high and would cost the economy billions of dollars.
But the country has been lulled into a false sense of security. “New Zealand hasn’t had a major disaster for 70, almost 80 years,” says David Johnston, the director of Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research. “People don’t have experience of the big one.”
In March, as an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale wrought devastation in Chile and set off tsunami warnings around the Pacific, thousands of New Zealanders flocked to the beach. A survey released days later revealed that just 15 per cent of New Zealanders have prepared adequately for a major natural disaster. “We find in Wellington, 90 per cent of people know that [one day] there’s going to be an earthquake. In Auckland, people know there’s a volcano,” says Johnston. “They know it’s going to happen, but it won’t be tomorrow, is their attitude.”
Killer quakes: New Zealand’s biggest recorded earthquake was a shake of magnitude 8.1 that hit Wairarapa on the North Island in 1855. The most destructive was the 1931 Napier quake, which killed 256 people and destroyed the city.
House insurance: Uniquely, the Earthquake Commission – a government-owned insurance scheme – insures homeowners against natural disasters.
What’s the damage? A quarter of the population, or a million people, will experience an earthquake powerful enough to damage household contents within the next 50 years.
The Pacific is the only region in the world that has not carried out a death sentence in the past decade, according to Amnesty International (it says that at least 714 people were executed last year alone in some 18 countries). “We applaud the Pacific region for paving the way to a death penalty-free world,” says Amnesty researcher Apolosi Bose.
Australia: a land of outdoor living and healthy eating? Fat chance, according to a British obesity expert, who says the country has one of the worst diets in the world. “Your diets now have 40 per cent of calories from fats and oils and that’s a pretty shocking statistic,” said Dr Tim Lobstein, addressing a workshop in Australia.
Julie Gilbert, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, believes the solution lies in better information. “We have become overwhelmed with nutritional information that is often confusing and misleading,” she says. There’s no time to waste: a remarkable 82 per cent of men in Western Australia are considered overweight or obese.
Oceania’s only main arms player is Australia, which is the only country in the region to make it into the top 50 suppliers and recipients of weapons globally – it’s 14th in the world for imports between 2005 and 2009, 60 places ahead of New Zealand.
Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama, Fiji’s military leader, has appointed his brother-in-law, who in 2007 was convicted of beating a man to death, as chairman of the Suva Rugby Union. Commander Francis Kean, head of Fiji’s navy, committed the assault at the wedding of Bainimarama’s daughter in 2006. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 18 months in jail, serving less than six before resuming control of the navy. His appointment to a key role in the national sport has been cited as evidence of the growing dominance over civilian life of Fiji’s military coup-makers and their associates.
Meanwhile, the architect of the country’s 1987 coups has apologised, saying he sees now that overthrowing the government set a poor precedent. Sitiveni Rabuka, a former soldier whose immunity from prosecution over the coups is enshrined in his country’s constitution, became contrite after the current military regime, which came to power in 2006, took away his politician’s pension and car.
Melbourne Council has taken the unusual step of placing a monetary value on each of the city’s trees in a bid to safeguard their future, and Adelaide is following suit. It means that if a company wants to chop down trees valued at €50,000 they must commit to planting new ones to the same value. Melbourne’s trees are valued at €400m.