The capital of New Zealand, Wellington‘s more than 400,000 residents draw on a long history of resilience, with diverse inhabitants creating strong communities over the past thousand years in a beautiful harbour at the southern tip of the country’s North Island. Potentially destructive earthquakes, rising seas, and the city’s famous winds have kept Wellingtonians acutely aware of their vulnerability, honing their famous Kiwi ingenuity. Today, Wellington is a city ready to innovate for resilience and preparedness in order to create tangible benefits for its communities.
With a more sophisticated understanding of their disaster risk, Wellington now knows that after an extreme natural disaster – like a big earthquake – the city could fracture into seven ‘disaster islands’. This means that critical infrastructure like power, water and roads will no longer function across the city as a whole but rather residents might effectively be marooned in their own neighborhoods without access to critical services or other parts of the city. Wellington’s critical pipeline infrastructure runs along a major seismic fault line making its piped water especially vulnerable to major disruption in the event of an earthquake. In this scenario, it could take the city up to 100 days to restore running water to some communities trapped on these ‘islands’.
In 2017, in recognition of its vulnerabilities and with a mandate to build resilience into the city’s critical infrastructure, the Wellington City Council allotted funding to improving Wellington’s water infrastructure through a series of projects. While much of this investment is earmarked for building redundancy into Wellington’s water systems and making them more robust, the first completed project aims to ensure all Wellingtonians have access to clean drinking water in the aftermath of a disaster. In July of 2017 Wellington launched the Community Infrastructure Resilience (CIR) Program, a US$ 8.25M suite of actions that will increase its water security and ensure resilience in the face of the next disaster.
The core of this program was the creation of a decentralized emergency water supply network, consisting of at least 22 strategically-placed community water stations across Wellington, which will be redundant to the city’s main water infrastructure and ensure water supplies for islanded communities following a disaster. These community water stations are pump and water treatment systems, housed in shipping containers, that can tap into either a groundwater or stream-based water supply when needed. Each station will be capable of extracting and treating enough water to supply residents within 1000m with up to 20 liters of water per person per day for up to 100 days.
Dormant during normal times, and requiring only quarterly maintenance, in the event of an earthquake local community volunteers will work with emergency responders to activate and operate the community water stations, as well as for deploying a bladder network that will use trucks to distribute water to collection points for citizens within 1000m of every home. and
The city recognized that the water stations wouldn’t effectively serve residents if they didn’t know how to access them or store water. The city therefore undertook a robust community engagement process to develop the plans for the community water stations, including their design and location, and paired that with a comprehensive communications strategy on how to prepare for an earthquake, the importance of storing seven days’ water supply at home, on how to access water after the first seven days via the bladder networks, and on how to support their neighbors through that initial recovery period.
Completed 18 months after the publication of the Wellington Resilience Strategy, the Community Infrastructure Resilience project was a key action designed to make Wellington less vulnerable to its disaster risk. But it was only the first step in securing Wellington’s water supply and making more resilient in the face of a future where the earth is moving, the sea is rising and Wellington is growing. Longer term water resilience projects include upgrading the reservoir that serves the Wellington Hospital and the Central Business District to ensure an emergency supply of water, procuring portable desalination capacity and exploring the possibility of a cross-harbour pipeline to add an alternate route for main water to reach Wellington city from the source.
Thanks to the community engagement process, the city was able to strategically co-locate the community water stations with existing social infrastructure (where water resources allowed) – areas such as playgrounds and parks that local communities already frequently visit for leisure and that are easily memorable and accessible. Wellington is also committed to leveraging the water stations for other essential community services, such as information, health, and social welfare outreach, in the event of a crisis.
In recognition of Wellington’s increasingly diverse population, the CIR project designed communications materials that made use of simple graphics and were easily understood by non-English speakers.
Finally, the process of reinforcing Wellington’s lifeline infrastructure gave the city an appreciation for the need to decentralize its critical utilities. This in turn sparked similar thinking about how it procures and deploys critical services. Wellington Water Ltd developed an innovative procurement model; an alliance, that builds the capacity of multiple vendors to support lifeline infrastructure at critical times. The restructuring improved the capacity of more actors in the city to be equipped to manage the water supply network.
By recognizing the lack of robustness of the below-ground water supply network, and taking a decentralized approach to water resilience that builds redundancy via a new above-ground water supply network, Wellington has created an inclusive and community-centered system for disaster response and mitigation.