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Letters To NZine - Why I Am Still Concerned About The Collapse Of The Opuha Dam
Alister Hunt (Retired Civil Engineer) - 3/9/99

I like to compare the failure of a large dam to the crash of an aircraft. Though they might seem very different, both are complex engineering structures with the capacity to wipe out suddenly hundreds of people. Clearly with an aircraft it is necessary to have a comprehensive system of checks that keeps risks to an absolute minimum. The public demands that. And part of that system too is to have an exhaustive inquiry to determine the cause. It should be the same for dams.

On Waitangi Day in 1997 the Opuha Dam, under construction in South Canterbury New Zealand, collapsed during a flood. Since then the dam has been completed, but there have been a series of court actions, many of them not yet resolved. Even when they are I am concerned that important issues will not have been addressed and there will remain a danger that future large dams could fail.

In my experience, when dams fail in developed countries overseas, there is more or less inevitably an inquiry, but in New Zealand at present, despite a dam's potential to cause such immense damage, this does not seem to be the case. It is the policy of the Government here now to let the market sort it outí and this results in a plethora of costly, long winded court actions which in my view may not resolve all the issues. The only way for there to be a powerful inquiry here now, it seems, is for there to be loss of life, and the impact of big news. This is not good enough. Though there was no loss of life at Opuha, this was fortuitous, and farmers in the region have told me that some people only just managed to get out of the way of the rampaging flood in time.

It is somewhat incidental that in the court action by the Canterbury Regional Council (CRC) against DHL (the contractor), and Christopher Hollingham (DHL's Project Manager), the judge said Hollingham was in a significant position of responsibility for which he had no qualification or experience. This was his first dam. Though this was a serious matter the real issue was how such a situation could have arisen, and how to prevent it happening in the future.

Had the former Ministry of Works still been in existence, it would undoubtedly have ensured that there was no failure at Opuha. In the court case mentioned above past President of the Institution of Professional Engineers NZ (IPENZ), John Blakeley, said it appeared something was wrong in quality control. The fact was something was not provided for and the most obvious thing missing is that there was no one there to blow the whistle. While the Ministry of Works would have monitored past projects quality control was now a grey area.

The Ministry of Works would also have been involved in the design and Resource Management Act hearing stages. There is no doubt in my mind that this would have ensured that design and construction risks would have been much better provided for.

The NZ Government has, at present, no engineers at all with any of the skills and experience of local conditions necessary to provide it with independent advice in this field, so that prospects for any change and proper vetting of future projects are not good. Private consulting engineers are unlikely to push the issue, and the media have lost interest.

These are the reasons why I, and many of my engineering colleagues, are extremely concerned that the lessons of the Opuha collapse have not been learnt. The irony is that it was once not this way. Sometimes the wheel has to be reinvented.

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