The Pope and the Flood: Whanganui, 2015

Pope’s Encyclical: “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home.”   With the publication of his encyclical last week, Francis’s status as rock star Pope has been elevated to rock icon Pope. The 183-page document, titled “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home,” will more than likely become remembered as the definitive writing of the 21st Century. I have praised Pope Francis in the pages of the Chronicle before and I will almost certainly praise him again. If there are two things I admire in this world they are courage and positive leadership. The courage and leadership Francis has demonstrated in the past turns out only to be a prelude to that which he demonstrates with this encyclical. Drawing on the best research in economics, science and sociology, Francis identifies the two most pressing issues facing humanity: climate change and income/wealth inequality. For anyone who has followed the research in these areas, the content of the encyclical is no surprise. Even avid Chronicle readers should be well aware that 98% of climate scientists worldwide agree that climate change is influence by human activity, and that wealth inequality exacerbates social problems and drags down economic growth. While these findings are based on the best data examined by the best researchers, they have proven to be politically unpalatable. The fact that Republican candidates for the American presidency are squirming in their seats in response to the encyclical is a sign of the times. Closer to home, we get the expected responses from National, Labour and the Greens, along with Paul Henry’s patented, “I don’t care.” Let’s pause for a quick reality check: Wellington, Dunedin and our own River City have experience historic flooding – ok, let’s call it Biblical flooding as long as this is a discussion about the Pope – in three separate rain events in the course of one month. Call me Noah ‘cause I’m building an ark.

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Was this flood event unexpected? No. Our community should be aware that Horizon’s Regional Council has halved the timeline for major flood events for the Whanganui River. In other words, what was the 100-year flood is now the 50-year flood, and what was the 200-year flood is now the 100-year flood. In light of this, ratepayers are right to wonder why our District Council has poured millions of dollars into developing the riverfront and moving an art gallery directly into harms way. Claiming it did not see this coming would beggar belief given what Horizon’s has advised along with over 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the topic of climate change. This would truly be the weakest possible response from our local government body to this crisis. If we wanted a non-response we could tune in to the Paul Henry Show. Floods happen, and data from around the world indicates they are happening more frequently and with more severity. Our ‘Katrina moment’ was never a question of if but of when. The Pope knows this. What amazed me was how gently and gradually it came upon us. There were no gales, thunderstorms or lightening. Quiz Night went on as usual Friday at Stellar and the River Traders Market took place Saturday morning across the street. The devastation came to us literally drop by drop, much in the same way wealth and income inequality has gradually widened over the last 30 years, hitting epic proportions – ok, let’s call them Biblical proportions – in the last seven years. The Pope knows this too.

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At the end of the day, what is significant about Francis’ encyclical is not its content. We already know that climate change and wealth inequality are bad for society and bad for the economy. What is significant is the person who has delivered that message with unprecedented courage and conviction. Would it be blasphemy to say this Pope has some serious huevos? For as long as I have lived in The River City, climate change and income inequality have been non-starter issues. Politically, they are perceived as no-go zones, yet we have seen their impacts on our community on more than a few occasions. Because of our unique location and economy, we suffer their effects to a greater extent than other communities. The longer our Council ignores them the greater our problems will become. The Pope even knows this. More than anything, Francis has issued a challenge of courage and leadership. Who in our community will answer the call of Care of Our Common Home’?

One thought on “The Pope and the Flood: Whanganui, 2015”

  1. New Zealand – if only our choices for where to site infrastructure were between a rock and a hard place! Alas, a geologically young country, steep and fast-eroding. River flats provide rich farmland, provided you don’t mind losing a few crops – NZ hydrology is much less predictable than, say, the Nile Valley. But our rivers are more deeply incised than others overseas, so farming the flats and living high and dry (see many traditional systems overseas) is not an option – steep valley walls erode and make for difficult access.
    Much of the country which isn’t river floodplain is hillside which isn’t stable without 100% forest cover (or even then). A wit once said “In Wellington a foolish man buys a house at the top of the hill and works hard on his garden. A wise man buys at the foot of the hill and waits for the garden to come down to him”.
    In the Whanganui area, the ideal site for the city would be on the plateau above the river valleys. But this would never have worked for the early settlers – too many transport difficulties, and logistical issues such as water supply. Of course the river wouldn’t have flooded nearly as much until the hinterland was stripped of forest cover. There are many rivermouths and estuaries around our coast that once were ports – inconceivable today as they look so shallow – but the scale of silting in the first 3 decades of forest clearance was hard to believe.
    In Ngamotu, (another plateau with deeply incised river gullies) settlement did spread inland via the ridges, but in the years since we have spread down into the valleys.
    I can’t think of any significant NZ settlement which is free of flood/severe storm risk.

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