Sanitation concerns in post-quake Christchurch
Wendy Zukerman, Australasia reporter
In the New Zealand city of Christchurch authorities are scrambling to restore water supplies and sewage systems which were severely damaged by last week’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake.
(Image: Jamie Ball/Rex Features)
Isolated cases of measles and gastroenteritis have been reported. According to Humphrey the gastro cases were likely to have been water-borne and the result of people brushing their teeth with contaminated water – rather than spread through human contact.
But, a Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman told the New Zealand Herald: “There is an underlying potential for there to be a measles outbreak. There’s a chance of an outbreak of gastro diseases.”
Many residents are living in camps, where the poor sanitation and cramped living conditions are perfect for disease outbreaks.
On Friday, Cowles Stadium welfare centre – which provided accommodation for Christchurch earthquake evacuees – was forced to close because its water and sewage services were not considered reliable.
Radio New Zealand reported that the Christchurch City Council was “worried about disease” at the stadium, and said it could not “afford an outbreak of diarrhoea.”
All citizens are being encouraged to boil their water before consuming it.
At 12.51 pm local time today – precisely one week from when the earthquake struck, burying as many as 200 people - the city stood silent for 2 minutes.
Mental health is seen as a growing concern in the city, too. A doctor from a nearby hospital that has been helping patients told the New Zealand Herald, “We had walking wounded coming in initially on Tuesday – people with cuts, minor injuries and things like that. We are starting to get more people with shock coming in and I expect that to increase.”
The tectonic forces that are shredding New Zealand
The week of 22 February the New Zealand city of Christchurch felt the force of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The quake came just five months after an even larger one struck 40 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. In fact New Zealand experiences around 14,000 tremors each year, although most are too small to be felt. They are a sign of the tectonic processes that are gradually shredding the country.
Why is New Zealand so prone to earthquakes?
Regions that lie close to a boundary between tectonic plates tend to feel more quakes than areas in the middle of a plate. New Zealand may have a total land area of just 27,000 square kilometres, but that area happens to coincide with the margin between the Pacific and Australian plates, leaving parts of the island very seismically active.
Which areas are most vulnerable?
Large areas of both North and South Islands have felt earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 within the past 200 years. This is because of New Zealand’s unique tectonic regime: despite its small size, the country feels the impact of three distinct regions of tectonic activity.
The relatively low-density continental crust of the North Island, which sits on the Australian plate, is forcing the dense oceanic crust on the Pacific plate beneath it in a process called subduction. This creates a so-called destructive plate margin that is nibbling away at the Pacific plate. Earthquakes are common where a subducting plate grinds against the underside of an overriding plate.
Something similar is occurring to the south-west of South Island. But here the sliver of continental crust lies on the Pacific plate, and it is the Australian plate that is being destroyed through subduction.
In between, the continental crust on the Pacific and Australian plates slide past one another on South Island, creating a conservative plate margin where crust is neither created nor destroyed. This area is still prone to earthquakes, most notably along the Alpine fault. Further away from these fault zones the ground is generally more quiescent. Christchurch is over 100 kilometres from the Alpine fault.
So what caused the Christchurch quake?
It was caused by a new fault – or, to be more precise, a previously unrecognised fault.
“The fault is likely to have existed previously – and possibly produced earthquakes before – but they have not ruptured recently, in a geological sense,” says John Townend at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The unrecognised fault appears to be an offshoot from the Alpine fault. Unfortunately for the residents of Christchurch, that offshoot passes very near South Island’s largest city.
Are more quakes on the fault likely?
Earthquake prediction is an inexact science, despite tantalising evidence thatearly warning systems may be possible in some cases. But some seismologists are cautiously optimistic.
“An earthquake of this magnitude does a good job of releasing stress,” says Gary Gibson, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Townend agrees: “My interpretation of what we are seeing near Christchurch is temporary, albeit harrowing, activity in what is generally a relatively low-seismicity part of the broad plate boundary.”
What’s the long-term prognosis for New Zealand?
Even if Christchurch dodges major seismic activity in the near future, tectonic forces will continue to act on New Zealand. Hamish Campbell at the research consultancy GNS Science in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, says it’s “very unlikely” that the newly recognised fault will have any serious effect on the country’s geography, but activity on the Alpine fault may well do so.
The rocks on either side of the Alpine fault are grinding past each other quickly – at around 30 millimetres per year. The southern part of South Island has moved at least 480 kilometres relative to the northern part within the past 25 million years. That rate of movement is “colossal”, says Campbell – and not far off the displacement seen on the world-famous San Andreas fault in California, which is itself a conservative plate margin.
Fast forward several million years and New Zealand will continue to twist and turn. The activity that is already shredding the country will ultimately see South Island “split in two along the Alpine boundary”, says Campbell. The town of Kaikoura would be at the northern tip of one island, with Greymouth at the southern tip of the other, he predicts.
The Alpine fault that runs along the mountainous spine of South Island marks the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from a previously unknown fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault.
It first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quake shook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Seismologists believe the latest quake resulted from …
Today’s fatal earthquake near Christchurch in New Zealand confirms that a country already riddled with major fault lines has gained another one, say seismologists.
“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.
New Zealand experiences thousands of earthquakes each year, because it lies on the boundary between the Pacific and the Australian tectonic plates. To the north-east, the Pacific plate is subducting beneath New Zealand’s North Island, and to the south-west, the Australian plate is subducting beneath the South Island. Between these two subduction zones lies theAlpine fault, running along the mountainous spine of the South Island.
It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from activity on a fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault that remained unknown until last year, says Musson.
The new fault first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quakeshook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Musson says the latest quake probably resulted from an eastward continuation of activity on the same fault. “It has probably not moved for tens of thousands of years, so lots of strain built up,” says Musson.
Christchurch was understandably unprepared for activity on a fault that is only now making its presence known. But two factors made today’s damage worse. The quake was just 5 kilometres down, limiting the amount of energy it dissipated before reaching Christchurch from its epicentre just 10 kilometres away. Also, the rock on either side of the fault accelerated almost three times as fast as in a typical quake, says Musson, so the shaking was extra violent – and significantly greater than the levels Christchurch’s structures have been designed to withstand
Here I begin a series of insights about the quake and its consequences, seen and unseen.
TODAY STOP PRESS: A magnitude 4 earthquake rattled parts of Christchurch this afternoon. The quake, which struck at 4.16pm at a depth of 9 kilometres, was centred 20km west of Christchurch. There were no initial reports of damage.
COMMENT: I have just returned from a very brief time in Christchurch where I witnessed first-hand the damage causesd by the first earthquake, followed by the second series of after-shocks. The city, still dealing from this quakes, is trying to come to terms with the reality.
From The Press, Christchurch: Rebuilding Lyttelton’s port will be one of the most complex post-quake tasks, its chief executive says.
Up to 20 staff were working on the rebuilding project.
“We’re in the process of still working through what our damage and rebuild costs will be,” he said.
The September 4 quake did more than shake the core piling and wharf restraint systems.
Some ships were turned away from Lyttelton during the quake period, but since then it had “been handling all the cargo” as planned, Davie said.
Most of the port facilities are on reclaimed land, including the container and coal-working areas and the fuel-tank farm.
Davie said hundreds of wharf piles, some buried 30 metres to 40m deep, were being assessed.
“You’ve got to try and model what has happened to them and what stresses they’re under and to what extent they’re damaged,” Davie said.
“Once you’ve done all that measurement, you then have to redesign what you would rebuild, and [assess] what the cost of that is.”
Part of general series: