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Friday, April 8, 2011

It's a crisis

It's a crisis

Last updated 05:00 04/04/2011
OPINION: Just as Christchurch people were beginning to feel that the city and their lives were starting to stabilise, they were faced with another fundamental crisis. The Press, by way of a front-page news item on Saturday, told citizens that their sewerage system was in danger of collapsing. It was strained to breaking point, being able to work at only 30 per cent of its required rate; failure would spread a stink over the city and further endanger the system right back to the house lavatory.

This is a serious setback. It deserves description as a crisis, even when that word is overused, because it threatens a fundamental service. Without a working and reliable city-wide sewerage system our lives become more complicated – we are pushed back into a primitive existence. Moreover, the possibility of contagious disease increases greatly.

Few people will need reminding of those basic facts, because so many are still having to put up with a hole in the garden or a chemical toilet. The Christchurch City Council certainly has been aware of the importance of a functioning sewerage system. It has spread portaloos through the devastated suburbs, issued advice on handling human waste, worked hard to re-reticulate water to fill cisterns and flush pipes, bought and delivered chemical toilets and warned that the sewerage system was under pressure.

What the council failed to do, even in its Saturday advertisement updating the situation, was plainly state that the system was in danger of stopping to work properly. It was only in talking to The Press that Mike Bourke, the CCC's water and waste operations manager, emphasised the gravity of the situation. Delaying the announcement was a serious error. Had citizens been forcefully and clearly warned that they needed to drastically reduce flushing and limit water use, they would have done so. Their response in this emergency to instructions from authorities has been comprehensive, even if sometimes – especially in the case of entry to the central business district – it has been accompanied by grumbles. They certainly would have limited flushing had they known it was imperative that they did.

It is true that the council has been saying this by way of its excellent full-page advertisements in The Press, but it was one of dozens of messages being given out. Those who did read what the council was saying got a confused and sometimes contradictory message, as writers of letters to The Press are pointing out. They were unsure if they were to reduce flushing or to use chemical toilets and portaloos even when their cisterns were filling normally.

Part of the cause of this confusion is the lack of a single council official daily facing the media and accounting for the detail of its work in administering the city. The mayor has done a good job speaking for Christchurch and relaying the main issues of the day, but he is not charged with the detail of reconstruction that is of such vital concern to citizens. The various council managers have done their best, but they lack the overall grasp that their boss, Tony Marryatt, has. He should have become the authoritative personification of the rebuild. Such a figure could have prevented the sewerage crisis that now faces Christchurch.

- The Press

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