Major stories from around the world in 2018


Sometimes it feels like New Zealand is too far away from the rest of the world. Australia is 3 hours flying time. The United States is half a day. People bemoan our geographical isolation and some say – justifiably or otherwise – that it is too far to go. And yet, as we have seen across the course of this year, sometimes that distance has not been such a bad thing after all.

2018 started with the world quite rattled by the increasing tension between North Korea and the United States. Fearful that the world might be on the brink of a nuclear incident with global consequences, the year 2018 has in some respects been thankfully free of what basically amounted to “My dick is bigger than your dick” competitions, immature, irrational and irresponsible as they were.

In terms of sport, the XXI Commonwealth Games were held on the Gold Coast in Australia. This is a quadrennial period in which the nations of the British Commonwealth enjoy 10 days of the top sporting entertainment on offer across a range of disciplines. Possibly the only bigger televised event in 2018 was teh F.I.F.A. World Cup in Russia, which France won against Croatia.

Economically the world economy had the wobbles. Rattled by the declaration of a trade war between the United States and China, the world watched as both sides mounted increasing tariffs. Increasing unease over Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the associated human rights abuses as well as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with growing concern about climate change has put the petrodollar on the skids.

Politically, 2018 has been dominated by the unpredictability of the United States President Donald Trump and his continued assault on what people understood to be the established international norms – even if not everyone agreed with them. A second big story that has grown over the last few months is the looming chaos of Britain exiting the European Union, about which exactly one month from when the U.K. Parliament has to have a final plan for exiting, no one seems to know what is going on.

One of the major themes of 2018 has been the on-going #MeToo movement aimed at bringing about an end to violence towards women. Exploding through the fabric of the internet during late 2017, fuelled by allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had abused women working on his films, #MeToo had become the rallying symbol of females determined that no more women should suffer abuse. It was then – and is still now – a signal to women that it is not only quite okay to come forward and complain about abuse that happened to them, but to also encourage such reports.

It would be remiss to ignore the 100th Anniversary period of World War 1 ending this year. Whilst 100 years old, it has continued to remind people of past wrongs and make us examine why humans go to war, but also to make sure we do not forget the lessons learnt at the expense of 10 million people in 1914-1918.

As 2018 ends it does so on a grim note from Indonesia. In a third world country with a poorly organized, funded and resourced Civil Defence, Indonesia which is a country straddling a large tectonic plate boundary and is riddled with volcanoes has suffered a rare volcanic tsunami. Anak Krakatoa, the cone being constructed in the place of the old Krakatoa volcano which blew itself to bits in 1883, collapsed during intense activity triggering a tsunami that has killed over 400 people. Krakatoa has a long history of such destructive behaviour, yet this seems to have taken the authorities by surprise.

New Zealand needs to be involved in the world and make sure other nations know and remember that we still exist. However it should be pointed out that some days it is a REALLY great thing to be a citizen of an island nation 12 hours flying time from the west coast of the United States, and a whole day’s flying time from the tumultuous E.U.

Being Kiwi has its benefits.

 

Pike River mine re-entry decision a victory for justice


Yesterday, nearly 8 years to the day since Pike River coal mine exploded, the decision was announced to re-enter the mine. The decision, which whilst a long time coming and delayed numerous times is a step in the right direction for the families of the dead and for New Zealand.

Pike River exploded on 19 November 2010 trapping 29 miners in the mine. Five days later anyone who had survived the first explosion in the mine would have been killed by a second significantly more powerful explosion. Since the explosion the decision whether or not to enter the mine has been fraught with difficulty and controversy.

The previous National-led Government believed it was too dangerous to try to re-enter the mine and opted for it to be sealed off with the deceased permanently entombed in it. They pointed to the high risk of another explosion if attempts were made to establish another entry point, or go down the existing drift.

Suggestions were made that a robot should be sent down the drift to see how far it is actually possible to go before determining whether or not humans can be sent down. Numerous robots were sent down and they had mixed results. Two army robots stopped working 800 metres into the tunnel and 1050 metres respectively. A video of a third robot going down was withheld by the police, and shows that the robot starts to overheat, but does not explode or catch fire because the atmosphere is inert – to have a flame there needs to be oxygen, and the fact that it fails to suggests it was 100% methane. The third robot got 1570 metres down the tunnel before stopping because its way was blocked by a loader that one of the miners had been operating when it exploded.

Despite the video, the then National led Government continued to insist that it was too dangerous, that the methane meant the risk of explosion is too high. This suggests to me either a deliberate ignorance of how explosions work.

For the families this wait would have been long, painful and mentally exhausting. For years now whilst politicians have fiddled over the Pike River mine they have had to go through life in some ways in a state of pause whilst they wait and hope for their men folk for whom this should have been just another day working in the mine. Instead it turned into New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since the Brunner Mine disaster where 65 miners were killed in March 1896, which was caused by a similar mechanism to that in the Pike River disaster.

So, I welcome the decision to go back into the mine and see if the recovery of the bodies is possible. I hope this makes people realize that unless experts say it is impracticable or physically impossible, that such events as this are explored as far as physically possible before anyone deceased as a result is written off as permanently missing.

What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Learning the lessons of Kristallnacht: 80 years on


80 years ago today one the most appalling pre-war acts of the Nazi German regime occurred. Kristallnacht which is Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass is an incident in that period when the full force of the German state and its supporters was unleashed against Germany’s Jewish population. Thousands of businesses, synagogues, homes, memorials, graveyards and sites of cultural importance to the Jewish population were trashed; 30,000 or more healthy Jewish males were rounded up to be sent to labour camps. Thousands more were injured.

Kristallnacht revolted the world. Jewish emigration to Israel and Palestine as well as other nations sky rocketed. But as bad as it certainly was, it was just a prelude to much worse. 80 years later, with far right politicians on the rise, the world showing significant indifference to humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Myanmar, and an increasingly toxic political debate with ethnic overtones surfacing, have we really learnt the lessons of this act of barbarism?

I do not believe New Zealand is at risk of such a horrendous act as Governments and the authorities have gone to lengths to ensure that all ethnic groups can feel safe in this country. The Police encourage people who have been subject to racist abuse to contact them. New Zealand communities would at all levels frown upon on such conduct. That was not the case in Germany in 1933 in that that Kristallnacht was stoked by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, and that the violence and vandalism was carried out by members of the S.S. and S.A. It was enabled by the Enabling Laws and was part of a much more systemic campaign to rid Germany of its Jewish population.

New Zealand however is not free of racial and other types of intolerance. On social media, in pubs and elsewhere casual racism can be seen on a daily basis. It might be subtle or not so subtle, but it is nonetheless the first step on the way to stoking worse offence. The causes are largely what they have been in the past – deliberate stoking of injustices, perceived or otherwise, the use of history against particular groups.

In the case of Jews, the idea that they somehow control the banking system, that physical characteristics about them such as “crooked noses” all contribute to the problem. So do the deliberate misuse of images such as photos of the gas chambers, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. But who will police this?

We however owe it to the generation that fought in World War 2 and saw the hell of the death camps and the concentration camps. We owe it the survivors of those camps to ensure that there is no chance of such wanton destruction being repeated.

If one wants to see where such a systemic campaign of abuse can lead, they need look no further than the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Government there headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has used the military to empty communities and create a physical and social environment that is inhospitable to Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk and have been displace in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They live in refugee camps with minimal food, no water, bedding or shelter, with the United Nations grossly under equipped to handle such huge numbers.

The political climate in some countries is leaning towards open hostility towards minority groups. In the United States, Brazil and other countries heads of government and heads of state a developing sense of fear and division that leads to violence and eventually all out conflict is at grave risk of taking hold. Once the public are mobilized against such groups, a mob mentality can potentially exist in which instead of asking questions, everyone turns on an unfortunate group or individual. And just as Germany did in the 1930’s the power of the state can be mobilized.

What happens after that is a very slippery, very dangerous slope with dreadful consequences if one loses their footing.

Getting ready for the Alpine Fault


It is New Zealand’s biggest seismic hazard, short of a Hikurangi Trench subduction zone rupture. The Alpine Fault earthquake that is expected to occur in the next 50-100 years has been well publicized. But how much are communities close to the fault doing to prepare for a magnitude 8.0+ earthquake?

The Alpine Fault, New Zealand’s answer to the well known San Andreas Fault in California, is the tectonic plate boundary between the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate where they intersect in the South Island. Every 300 years or so this fault line ruptures in a magnitude 8 earthquake. A sequence of 24 events over the last 8,000 years points to earthquakes in 1100AD, 1450AD, 1620AD and finally around 1717AD,

No part of the South Island will be spared prolonged shaking. Many people, especially i in the lower North Island, will also notice the earthquake. Shaking intensities along the rupturing segment of fault are likely to be up to MMX, which is strong enough to heavily  damage all structures, with many failing and large objects such as televisions and microwaves being moved about. Liquefaction, lateral spreading, landslides and seiching of lake bodies will occur as well.

Alpine Fault Magnitude 8 is a collaborative and ongoing project to improve the readiness of councils across the South Island in terms of their ability to respond to such an event. It has buy in from emergency services, Civil Defence, social groups, the N.Z.D.F., agencies working with lifeline infrastructure and others. The aim is to improve modelling of the potential hazard, engage emergency management and planning experts and use the knowledge gleaned to fill gaps about how to respond.

I anticipate that much of the work that has been done will have been brought into sharp focus by the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016. This was the largest onshore earthquake to hit New Zealand since Murchison in 1929. It caused widespread damage across the northern South Island and lower North Island. The quake exposed weaknesses in transport arrangements with both the railway line and State Highway 1 closed – traffic had to be rerouted through the Lewis Pass in order to reach Picton.

Despite the Kaikoura earthquake and lingering shadow of the Christchurch earthquake, not all councils appear keen to progress their disaster planning. Westland District Council found itself in hot water in 2016 for rejecting Plan Change 7, which sought to address the planning issues that Franz Josef township finds itself confronting. The township straddles the Alpine Fault, which is clearly visible from the air as a crude gash in the landscape. Critics pointed out that the council has a duty of care to all in the District and that by failing to address the risks posed, it leaves itself open to court action by anyone in the District at the time of such an earthquake.

Yet the risk remains. Other councils are pressing ahead with their own plans individually, to be fed into the overall A.F.8. planning framework. It is a proactive council that stands the best chance of success, for no one knows when 300 years of seismic stress on the Alpine Fault will give up the ghost. The only certainty is that with the same confidence that darkness will come into a room when the light goes out, one can conclude it is inevitable.