SHAPING RIVERS - shifting water patterns in a changing landscape
I spend a lot of my time in Christchurch, NZ.
Where I live is close to the centre of this sprawling city which is the second largest in New Zealand. However put this in perspective as the entire population of the nation is less than 4.5 million and kiwis are like the Scots and Irish - forever roving and popping up everywhere in the most amazing situations and regularly the tide seems to come in and go out regarding net migration/ immigration.
One of the most senior officials at the UN in New York is our retired Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the number two to Richard Branson in the Virgin empire is a kiwi ex London lawyer. These are two examples but of course we always love to hear of kiwis doing well overseas as it balances our natural somewhat self conscious stance in the world. Nevertheless we are famously blunt and direct, honest.
Every society is an ongoing experiment, and some progress more than others, while some stall, and the others just seem to be waking. It is a connected and wired world, and even more so in the coming age. Here it is another experiment and we have reached a critical phase of increasing separation in society with like so many western societies growing divisions between rich and poor. For a large extended family and an extended paradigm of the whanau ( the extended family in Maori), and the spirit of the place, the land ( the land of the ancestors), then this problem we have is a very special opportunity. That is, to help one another in the spirit of family, in a unique way in this unique place, rather than be increasingly separated and isolated, and for some, extremely vulnerable. We care with our hearts and minds.
In a small society it is so much easier to change direction and improve values - the analogy is steering a small pleasure boat on the harbour as opposed to changing course for a giant supertanker.
So elections are coming up and the opportunity for (big) change lies ahead. This year we have a blending of billionaire Mr Dotcom funding an Internet Party that has joined with an activist Maori Party. This is potentially very dynamic in a small society where the political system is a German model of amalgamations and tenuous associations. No one party can govern alone.
So right now we might be at a cross roads for change and further experiments ( the last set of imported Reagan and Thatcher 'trickle - down' theory political economics caused social havoc in the 1980's and it is widely acknowledged has brought about the widening divisions we now experience). This is the human scale, but about the planetary scale where national borders mean nothing?
What are the odds? Meteors land, tsunamis beach, volcanoes erupt and earthquakes release some vast planetary energies. There are massive earthquakes sometimes particularly Japan, Chile ( with wide spread consequences) and China and many rings of fire upon the planet but who would have thought nearly four years ago now an E/Q event ( always now I know this is a long extended series of aftershocks) would be centred in this pretty, sleepy, small city by world standards. Little did we know the system of faults running below the city were like a spaghetti junction on motorway systems in Los Angeles, and sure enough as all energies inter-connect, four and nine months after two other massive and even more centralised events hit.
Many lives were lost , and over a three year period most of the central city has been demolished through E/Q damage, and even now we still feel the occasional shock either as a rolling wave or a sudden vertical acceleration if the epicentre is close, and by close I mean a few kilometres.
As always with disasters, initial estimates of costs are way out, and in fact the cost of this event may roll to +$80 Billion NZD ( about 70 Billion USD). Much damage is underground and every street in the city has to be methodically and often several times replaced as all underground services were terminally damaged.
With all the shaking the land sunk and consolidated ( ex marshland) 500mm to one metre, and rivers flooded with their fall confused and silted and estuaries clogged. Now every heavy rain causes widespread flooding and with it much pollution.
The new office buildings are now all base isolated in the Japanese/NZ best engineering practice and I have met Kit Miyamoto the brilliant Engineer ( and his associates) who handle worldwide E/Q disasters. They are very cool. The technologies atop Tokyo office towers are astonishing, elegant and effective.
Amongst all the demolition, the confusion, and the stress, one piece of work has been proceeding the past six months, as a statement for the future. It is an experiment also. The river Avon that runs through the central city, the river that is at times a slow stream, and at others a flood swollen mighty torrent, this river is having a make-over.
A river is always a symbol of renewal, and life. It heals, make whole again, But first it needs to be repaired and cleaned. You have to go back to priorities and find the place to start the healing process.
The river is a natural way that water finds its way to the ocean from an inland source, and gravity provides the direction.
The river used to peacefully meander through this city, often sparkling and clear, with fish and birds in abundance.
The shakes modified all that and in recent years the river become silted, polluted and because of confused levels, increasingly prone to flooding and destruction. It was no longer a pure symbol.
So it was an inspired move for the City Council to take a first step and spend millions to clean, dredge, replant, re-shape the river and repair all bridges and adjoining walkways and reserve recreation areas. In some cases narrowing the channel but always with natural fractal meanderings.
Day by day I have watched teams of specialist hydraulic engineers and workers temporarily dam, modify and direct waters to speed or slow flow, to clean the stony river bed, to remove silt, mud, sandy grey liquefaction from earthquake pressures. and to re-position boulders, stones, planting, and adjust stream and river width and depth, playing with levels and measuring volumes and velocities. Teams of workers, diggers, steel plates, air cushions and planting mats in place to safeguard new planting and prevent stripping when the next raging flood torrent comes through.
Short rapids, races have been created ( as with lowland rivers), deeper more still pools, and safe re-organisation of whirls and eddies, with sometimes a key massive boulder in place to spread patterns depending on the river flow, volume and depth - everyday a different display as the variables adjust, as do the light conditions. Nearby native vegetation will be introduced, some flowering. This will attract native pigeons and songbirds. The pools will encourage fish and river freshwater crayfish. As often with nature, all this work of enriching quickly multiplies and bio diversity accelerates, as long as the purity of the water from upstream can be enforced ( dairy runoff and leaching of phosphates). This is why the programme has to interact on the bigger scale, and also downstream so that natural wide spreading estuaries can be expanded to control flood risk. Every variable is interactive as in chaos mathematical models.
What delighted me watching from the bridge was the tuning, the positioning of some of these stones put in place by science and massive engineering technology. Of course it may be swept away within 6 months. We shall see. But it is a demonstration of a common will to modify nature and create a more beautiful and balanced environment. Great ambitious work and it operates on many levels. Many respond with curiosity; some are scathing in criticism; others note the gradual change for the better, in effect playing with patterns which will actually make us better, whole again.
The theory behind this is mimicking nature and it's variety and richness of solutions and opportunities where short cycles, small patterns, are put out to see which prosper and which fail, and to encourage an interaction of social life in the city with the natural forces of the river and its daily variations. We are fascinated by patterns and so many stand and watch, or sit and reflect watching the water flow with its currents, eddies and pools.
While this is going on ( with some irony) 5 minutes walk beside the river you come across the Christchurch Casino building and for those who have the interest a similar stream of patterns and eddies unfurls from the roulette wheels. Again, with a trained eye and some knowledge, there is fascination in the outcomes just as beautiful as the river, once you learn to see.
On many levels the city rebuild works are a series of experiments to bring pleasure, comfort, some peace and beauty but also restore confidence in present and future life. Experiments have risk of failure, but will always provide opportunities from which to learn. On all scales, patterns and clusterings, fresh groupings and associations are major aspects of life. As humans we assemble, build and work with these- in between the really big natural events that may break it all down again, as with what appears to be two opposing sets of forces.
A reasonable question may thus follow, but that is beyond the scope of this essay or this context.