On 17 March 2016, after days of torrential rain, the Waiho River at Franz Josef finally did something that council planners and consultants had been warning of for years: it broke through the banks swamping large parts of abandoned flood plain, causing $30 million in damage around the township.
The Westland District Council knew this was going to happen. A report in The Press states that at least four separate reports over the space of as many years warned their assets management team that such an event was inevitable. One did not need to be a council planner to know that the Waiho River, as long as its flood plain was choked by a stop bank would continue relentlessly piling up against it and eventually over top the bank. Hazard Management students on field trips have frequently visited the area to learn about the interplay between the Waiho River, the town and the Alpine Fault (which is beyond the scope of this article).
The photo below was taken in 2005 whilst on a field trip by myself of a flood warning sign on the south bank, recognizing the risk of a debris dam failure in the upper reaches of the Waiho River catchment. Whilst a debris dam failure was not involved in this flood, an event caused by one would be more than sufficient to over top the bank.
With such wide knowledge of the flood hazard, and in an era of heightened hazard awareness, how and why did the W.D.C. come to a decision not to act on the warnings. To answer that we need ask the question:
So what is going on at Westland District Council?
The floods caused serious damage to a hotel, the sewerage treatment ponds and town water supply. They caused damage to the stop banks protecting numerous businesses and over 200 people had to be evacuated.
After the announcement that the Westland District Council Asset Management team Manager Vivek Goel was placed on leave, it was announced that the Serious Fraud Office was investigating whether or not Mr Goel had been involved in fraudulent practices. As Manager of the Asset team, it was Mr Goel’s task to ensure that the infrastructure he was responsible for would at the very least handle natural events expected to happen in its lifetime. It had been found that to replace the sewerage oxidation ponds, Mr Goel had planned to build a sewerage intensive treatment plant and had sourced his own contractor to do the work. The contractor, a cake decorator with no prior knowledge of asset management, was awarded a $7 million contract to . As of 31 March, Vivek Goel was reported as having left the W.D.C by the Greymouth Star
But what of the actual failure to act on the warnings? Was it incompetence – simply someone not fit to be handling such critical assets being caught in a job that they did not know how to do? Prior to working for W.D.C. Mr Goel was an employee of Taranaki District Council, which he left in 2010.
In a climate of reasonably increased expectations post Christchurch earthquake, ratepayers across New Zealand do not any longer accept the potential for bad planning. The realisation and understanding that as ratepayers, they have a right ot know that there will be a duty of care which the W.D.C. – like any other council has – to the visitors, the locals alike.