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Nikki Kaye: Speech to Disaster Risk Reduction Forum

Speech to the 4th Session of the Global Platform For Disaster Risk Reduction, Geneva, Switzerland

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, katoa.

It is a privilege to be giving this address at the opening ceremony of the
4th Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.

New Zealand has been challenged by the major recovery and rebuild of Canterbury both in terms of scale and complexity, following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.

We have been rebuilding not just our infrastructure, but also our communities.

For a small nation, losing 185 people, including foreign citizens, has been hard.

But New Zealand was able to respond well to the earthquakes because we have had 40 years developing and refining our systems to respond to the many hazards and risks that come with our geology and unique location.

We also know that the situation could have been a lot worse if we had not invested in high building standards.

New Zealand’s approach to emergency management

Our approach to emergency management is based on building resilience through risk reduction and readiness, followed by response and recovery when disaster occurs.

The focus is on managing the risks rather than the hazards.  

Our strong framework is based on legislation, plans and arrangements that cover roles and responsibilities at all levels.

It starts at a community level with the premise that each community knows best both what their hazards are and how to respond to them. 

And as happened in Canterbury, it can scale up to involve the best of national resources.

We were also fortunate to have kind offers of international assistance and thank you again to all those countries - many represented here today - that reached out and assisted us at our time of need.

Canterbury earthquakes response and recovery

It is important to acknowledge the scale of the impact and the resources needed to manage the recovery.  

New Zealand has established a Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery, and a government department – the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA). 

I want to acknowledge the Minister, the Honourable Gerry Brownlee, for his tireless efforts and dedication to the recovery effort. I also want to acknowledge Roger Sutton, who is here at the Global Platform representing CERA.

The Canterbury earthquake event has been an unfolding sequence. Unlike a flood which eventually recedes, Canterbury has been hit by sizeable aftershocks. These have not only tested the already damaged buildings but put considerable mental strain on our people.

Buildings and infrastructure

Our building code was already strong, which meant structures held up well to the incredible shaking force of the earthquakes. This meant many people could stay in their homes, even though they were damaged.

To give you a better understanding of the scale of the damage, of the 185,000 houses in the region, 170,000 residents reported damage. More than 20,000 new houses will need to be built.

We have had to systematically clear the Central Business District of Christchurch city of damaged buildings. This programme will demolish more than 1000 sizeable buildings.

The New Zealand Government has purchased more than 7000 of the worst affected residential properties. This is about aiming to give the owners the ability to move to a new housing situation that best suits their needs.

We designed a new model for the repair of horizontal infrastructure that will rebuild almost all of it inside five years.

We have set out a bold plan to regenerate and rebuild the Christchurch city centre. This is a modern, planned urban environment which incorporates high quality social and public services.

Economic recovery

We held our economy together with an emergency wage subsidy. This gave businesses time to reorganise and regroup. This also kept people in employment and able to survive.

Our challenge is that the cost is $40 billion which represents over 20 per cent of our National GDP.

We have invested in advance in earthquake science and New Zealanders have taken out extensive insurance cover. This means we have strong foundations to fund our recovery.

The way forward

Our recovery has been built on the vision of rebuilding the city, not as it was, but better.

Looking to the future, New Zealand has focused on some key areas to improve our emergency management system.

We have a programme of work to strengthen our system including improving our response for vulnerable people and the training of our volunteer workforce.

Investing in science and risk assessment

To mitigate risks we first need to have a strong understanding of them.

Sound science and evidence-based research is essential to improve hazard risk management.

This information must be communicated in ways that are understandable to decision-makers and communities at risk. 

The New Zealand Government has supported taking a strategic approach to national investment in natural hazards research with clear priorities and collaboration across science providers and the community.  Our Government has put more funds into natural hazards research.

Improving the legislative framework for building safety

New Zealand’s seismic risk to buildings has been long understood and building designs and structural codes have improved over time to reflect
best practice.

Newer building stock generally performed satisfactorily during the quakes, with only a few system and standards improvements needed. 

However, a legacy of older building stock poses significant risk within many urban centres around New Zealand. 

A key issue for Government is to consider ways to manage older buildings which do not meet modern structural standards (earthquake prone buildings), while providing for public safety, maintaining heritage values and economic viability.  

Providing clarity of roles and responsibilities

One of the key lessons from the Canterbury response was the need to ensure clear lines of control.

In particular, the need to focus on avoiding over-reliance on critical persons or systems that may not be available on the day.

Another area of focus is having sufficient numbers of trained personnel to enable a sustained response over many days. 

Improving community awareness, preparedness and participation

In terms of community participation, we have learned the importance of building upon existing community networks and involving and trusting communities to know both their environment and what works for them.

We are exploring how to better harness social media to organise self-response, in areas where communities are best placed to help themselves, or where their needs do not match immediate response priorities. 

There are some amazing stories of how communities have come together in Canterbury not only to support each other but also to take action.

Ultimately, how well communities fare depends on their level of awareness about, and preparedness for, the risks they face. This applies to households, communities and businesses. 

Emergencies by their very nature are extraordinary events, and stretch the everyday capabilities and processes of all involved. 

I would like to recognise how New Zealand’s young people responded. In particular I would like to acknowledge Sam Johnson, a student from Canterbury University who organised a student volunteer army to help Cantabrians immediately after the earthquakes. This “army” was made up of informal groups who helped with non-lifesaving tasks, in particular cleaning up soil liquefaction on streets and around homes. 

Looking forward, in the post-quake landscape, an opportunity exists to do things differently and collaboratively for young people.


The wants, behaviours and level of understanding of people and communities that can lead to hazard risk exposure are varied and complex, and often deep rooted.

Determining the best means of addressing risks in a comprehensive and integrated manner, and getting broad agreement to it, is a considerable challenge.

This can be achieved through regulatory frameworks and democratic institutions that deliver hazard risk management strategies. 

In terms of recovery two years in, we are sensitive to communities that are weary and eager to get on with their lives.

We understand that central government has a responsibility to maintain momentum of response to a disaster when the affected communities’ inbuilt resilience wears thin.

New Zealand is reviewing and strengthening many of our core statutory instruments and processes that underpin hazard management and support community resilience outcomes.   

In closing, I would like to talk about international collaboration.

Our international development programme draws on our domestic experience to help our Pacific and ASEAN neighbours. New Zealand is proud to be investing in and building the capability of national disaster management offices in the Pacific.

It is appropriate to design an emergency management system that is right for individual environments and countries

But there are areas that are internationally relevant, such as science, where information and skills are transportable and can be shared.

It is our desire that through the tragedy of the Canterbury earthquakes, other nations will be more resilient as a result of our investment and our contribution to risk reduction.

That is why we are all here. This conference is an important opportunity for global leaders and their Governments, non-government organisations and technical experts to form relationships that will save lives. 

Thank you.


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