Last weekend’s record floods in Whanganui are not an isolated local event.The event itself and our government’s reaction are part of a bigger picture. The devastating rainfall didn’t come out of nowhere and the government’s response is part of our general political thinking and ideology.
Extreme weather events like this are part of the predicted consequences of climate change. The connection is quite simple for anyone who learned basic physics at school. Warmer air has the capacity to carry more water. The warming atmosphere can store more moisture, which when released can make for more catastrophic rainfall.
I have seen the hill country around Whanganui and have driven up the river and even in a normal year you see all the slips and can only draw one conclusion. These hills should never have been cleared of their native bush vegetation and broken in for pastoral farming. These poor farmers of today are paying for the environmental sins of their forefathers.
We learned or should have learned this lesson before when Cyclone Bola hit the Gisborne area in 1988. There winds forced warm moist air up and over the hills, increasing the rainfall. In places, more than 900 mm of rain fell in 72 hours, and one area had 514 mm in a single day. The downpours triggered innumerable landslides on the region’s hillside pastures. The only difference that in 1988 it took a tropical cyclone to cause all the devastation. In 2015 it was just a very rainy day.
The government’s response also told us more about their general attitude on other matters than the actual crisis. Following the progressing news my wicked mind went into overdrive connecting the dots.
First I heard our neoliberal Prime Minister having to utter the words “Climate Change”.
I saw him running to the bathroom afterwards washing out his mouth.
Researching this post I put “Whanganui floods” into the NZ Herald article search engine. To my pleasant surprise a Whanganui Chronicle article titled “Pope’s unpalatable truths” about his latest encyclical dealing with climate change and related issues like capitalism pops up. Isn’t it interesting that a newspaper search engine seems to have more understanding of New Zealand’s latest extreme weather event than our Prime Minister.
Then I watched the evening news. We saw the devastation and learned that people could not go back into the affected areas and their houses as the deep sludge was contaminated with raw sewage basically diluted shit. In front of it we saw Civil Defence minister Nikki Kaye telling us that “beneficiaries” would be used to clean it up.
In New Zealand the term “beneficiary” includes a wide range of people from single mothers on a domestic purposes benefit to the mentally or otherwise chronically ill or injured on a sickness benefit to the unemployed and some even include pensioners on superannuation. They are all dealt with by the same Department for Work and Income (WINZ). All have legal rights and entitlements to the support they are getting. All have contributed to the coffers they now get their entitlement from. They do not receive their payment as a form of charity.
Still beneficiaries are looked down upon as the undeserving poor or needy. Beneficiary bashing has long become a New Zealand national past time and the media uncritically repeated that “beneficiaries” would be cleaning up the mess.
The minister didn’t say that the government would employ people looking for work or send in the Taskforce Green. She said beneficiaries and you could see the glee in her eyes. I had the distinct feeling that this amounted to just another form of beneficiary bashing. Standing in front of the toxic sludge telling us that beneficiaries would clean it up made her glee, her “Schadenfreude”, palpable.
The government will put the costs of the disaster on it’s MasterCard and gleefully give the credit card company another sequence to their ad campaign.
The 2015 Whanganui Flood:
Repairing the roads : $60 million
Repairing riverbanks : $10 million
Repairing fences : $ 2 million
Beneficiaries shovelling shit : Priceless.