Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

***

Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

***

In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

***

This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

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Things I learnt from city living

A year ago my husband and I were living in a small apartment in Auckland’s city centre. We only stayed there for six months before moving back out to suburbia, but I learned a lot during that time.

1. Small can be beautiful

My apartment had a floor area of just 31 m², including a mezzanine sleeping area with a rather low ceiling (only my shortest friends could stand up straight without hitting their heads). But the high ceiling and full-height windows in the main living area made the room feel much more spacious than many of the other tiny apartments we viewed while flat-hunting. Continue reading

Not for Eating

Spotted in Albert Park this week:
“Please be advised that these are ornamental vegetables – they are not for eating”

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Normally when I come across vegetable gardens in public spaces they’re part of a project to encourage sharing and eating fresh food (like the Incredible Edible garden I saw in Geraldine a few weeks ago). While I appreciate that vege patches can look good, it seems counterintuitive to grow something edible and then tell people it’s not for eating!

Edible Incredible Geraldine

Auckland: Fixing Transport and Saving Libraries

Auckland Council is currently consulting on their 10-year budget (you can have your say at www.shapeauckland.co.nz). Two of the key issues Auckland Council are asking about are transport and rates. It’s an important opportunity for all Aucklanders to have a say, because the decisions made as a result of the consultation will affect everyone — all those who use the transport network to get around, and all those who pay rates (whether directly or via rent).

I’d like to briefly talk about two aspects of the consultation, transport and libraries.

Transport

Transport one of the biggest issues Auckland is facing. In the 10-year budget, the Council presents us with just two options:

  1. Basic Transport Network – The projects in the Basic Transport Network can be funded from the existing rates budget, but it won’t support our growing demand for transport so we’ll end up with exacerbated congestion and poor alternatives to car-based travel.
  2. Auckland Plan Transport Network – The Auckland Plan includes a long list of all the projects inherited from the previous city councils in the region, but doesn’t attempt to prioritise between them. As a result the proposed investment is expensive and requires alternative revenue streams.

However, these two options offer a false choice. While Auckland Council is taking an all-or-nothing approach, Generation Zero have come up with a third option: the Essential Transport Budget. In a nutshell, the Essential Budget includes all the projects of the Basic Transport Network, plus investment in key public transport, walking and cycling projects that will provide Aucklanders with congestion-free alternatives for getting around the city. By prioritising spending in these areas, the Essential Budget ends up significantly cheaper than the Auckland Plan Network.

Gen Zero have written a series of posts about the Essential Budget on TransportBlog, and more detail is also available at www.fixourcity.co.nz. If you want to submit in support of the Essential Budget you can do so here.

Libraries

The second issue that concerns me in the 10-year budget consultation is presented as a single sentence buried deep within the Local Board Priorities section.

A Council-led proposal to “reduce and standardise library opening hours” means that many areas will either see reduced opening hours or require top-up funding from local boards to maintain existing opening hours.

I know the Council is concerned about tight budgets right now, but as someone who has a great love and respect for libraries and librarians, and who believes library opening hours are already too short, I’m horrified that the Council is proposing to cut library hours. The savings are minimal and the costs are too great.

Libraries provide life-lines for people who are out of work, who may have limited computer literacy or no access to the internet at home.

Libraries are community spaces, safe havens. They give everyone equal access to information, and they come with librarians who can help us find the useful information.

Libraries give us free things and then let us return them when we no longer need them.

Being able to read — and to read for pleasure — gives children better prospects for their future. Not only are communication and the written word increasingly important for jobs in the modern world, but low literacy is correlated with a higher likelihood of going to prison.

Reading fiction in particular helps to foster empathy, imagination and innovation.

Neil Gaiman gave an excellent speech a couple of years ago that covers all these points and so much more; I suggest you have a read.

 

But back to the issue at hand: Consultation on Auckland’s 10-year budget is only open for another week, so get in quick at www.shapeauckland.co.nz!

No escaping gravity: Why you should care about King Tides

This weekend Auckland will experience a King Tide — an unusually high tide that arises from the combination of gravitational factors.

All tides depend on changes in the moon’s gravitational pull as the moon revolves around the Earth. The sun also plays a role, so during a full moon or a new moon, when the sun and moon are lined up, higher than normal tides called “spring tides” occur. When a spring tide occurs while the moon is at its closest to the Earth, the extra strong gravitational pull results in a very high tide called a “king tide”.

This weekend’s king tide is expected to peak on Saturday morning, at 10:05 a.m. on the east coast and 12:12 p.m. on the west coast.

A king tide also occurred in February last year, and I headed down to my local beach with my camera to check it out. Plenty of people were had already enjoying the beautiful summer’s day at the beach, but there was precious little space for them to set up on the sand. In fact, I could only find about 1 square metre of sand on the entire beach that hadn’t been drenched by the incoming waves. One enterprising woman had built a moat and wall to protect her towel from the oncoming water.

Continue reading

What is really meant by “housing affordability”?

The last few years has seen an ass-load of media coverage about the housing affordability crisis in Auckland. The median price of a house in Auckland is now 7 times the median salary of an Aucklander, compared with 5 times in 1998… And quite frankly, the thought of saving enough money to place a deposit on a decent house* in a decent location** and to service the mortgage for three decades afterwards*** terrifies me.

For this post I want to focus on one aspect of the housing affordability debate that never seems to get much coverage: What exactly is an affordable house?

The most common measure is that affordable housing should cost no more than 30% of household income.† However, I’ve seen different sources report this as either pre-tax or post-tax household income, and in some cases the cost of power and water are included while others refer only to the cost of rent or mortgage payments. Often, none of these variables are mentioned at all. Depending which combination of criteria are used, my current housing costs are between 25% or 40% of my income (for rent only as a proportion of gross income, or rent plus utility bills as a percent of net income, respectively), so clearly defining the criteria of housing costs and household income makes a significant difference to the proportion of people who have access to affordable housing.

Furthermore, why is the percentage of household income used as the affordability threshold in the first place? Let’s say household A earns $50,000 per year, while household B earns $150,000, and both spend 30% of their income on housing costs. Household A has $35,000 leftover for all other living costs, while household B is left with $105,000, i.e. three times as much as household A. That $70,000 difference will make a huge difference in the overall lifestyle and living standards of the two families. It seems to me that overall living costs, and the availability of a living wage, are more important considerations for assessing affordability than the proportion of income taken up by  any one living cost in isolation (e.g. housing, food, or travel).

In my next post on housing affordability, I’ll discuss the different ways that housing costs can be measured, which are cause for debate about whether housing in Auckland is actually less affordable than it was a generation ago.

 

* i.e., not falling apart
** i.e., where most of my transport needs can be met without using a car
*** i.e., most of the remainder of my working life
† Although it’s worth noting that in the first half of the 20th century affordable housing was considered to cost no more than 20% of household income