Life is a risky business

Life is risky. Living in New Zealand is risky. The trick is to recognise that and be as prepared as possible for whatever may come along.

Such preparedness, of course, comes at a cost. Not all countries can afford to have in place the kind of physical infrastructure that will minimise the impact of a disaster. And not all, due to perhaps poor education efforts, low literacy levels and a lack of access to information, are societally ready and resilient enough to cope with the worst.

There cannot be that many global indices or scales on which New Zealand is rated as comparable with Bangladesh. But that is the case with an international study by Lloyd's of London, which ranks New Zealand as the world's second-riskiest country out of the 43 it investigated, in terms of their non-life underinsurance and insurance takeup rates. Bangladesh is the riskiest.

New Zealand is a First World, Western society, with generally enviable infrastructure and civil defence. So how can we be almost as "at risk'' of disaster as one of the poorest countries in the world, an overcrowded nation hugely vulnerable to flooding and tropical cyclones?

It comes down to our geography. Not only does New Zealand straddle the "Pacific Ring of Fire'', with its accompanying earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but our location in the "Roaring 40s'' ensures the country is a frequent target for rain and wind-bearing storm systems.

The narrow Cook Strait between New Zealand's two main islands, and the mountainous backbone from the southwest tip of the South Island to the northeastern extremity of the North Island, exacerbates the intensity of rain and snow, drought and wind. Climate change is also adding another level of potency to such weather events.

The chief executive of the Insurance Council of New Zealand, Tim Grafton, says the Lloyd's study confirms "how risky New Zealand really is''. Certainly the past decade has been a tumultuous time for New Zealanders, who have had to cope with disasters that have taken lives, wrecked homes and ruined livelihoods.

As Mr Grafton says, the cost of the devastating Canterbury earthquakes has continued to rise, along with their repercussions. The magnitude-7.8 quake in November 2016, which badly affected Kaikoura, parts of Marlborough and also Wellington, was extremely costly, as was the Edgecumbe flood in April 2017.

He says most New Zealanders understand the importance of being insured, with this country having the fourth highest level of insurance penetration in the world. However, some people's assets remain considerably undervalued.

It should come as no surprise, then, how "risky'' it is to live in New Zealand. There are probably more than a million Kiwis who can attest to that through their personal experiences during the past eight years.

Thorough preparedness is a good thing. But more can always be done. Some Cantabrians had been semi-ready for a big earthquake for years before they began happening but, because of the scale of the quakes, that level of preparedness was only of limited practical help.

The Earthquake Commission had been preparing for such a disaster for decades, yet when it came could not cope with it and made a botch of many aspects of its response.

It beggars belief the owners of about 5000 houses in Christchurch are still waiting for their properties to be fixed, that assessments and some assessors were appallingly shonky, and that residents who complained were spied upon by a security firm. Thank goodness this Government has made significant moves to sort out the mess, which one would not expect in a country like this.

In the meantime, with the Alpine Fault slumbering for who knows how much longer on our doorstep, we would be wise to remember what happened in Christchurch and be as prepared as possible for our risky future.


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