The Big Wave

Recent devastation in the Pacific has a parallel in the great New Zealand tsunami.

Listener: 7 November, 2009.

Keywords: Maori; Political Economy & History;

The sea grew dark and troubled and angry, and presently a great wave, which gathered strength as it came, swept towards the shore. It advanced over the beach, sweeping Titipa and all his fish before it till with the noise of thunder it struck the cliff on which the people stood. The great wave receded, sucking with it innumerable boulders and the helpless, struggling Titipa. Then another wave, greater than the previous one, came with tremendous force and, sweeping the shore, struck the cliff with a thunderous roar. This was followed by a third which, when it receded, left the beach scoured and bare. Titipa and all his fish had disappeared.

About 500 years ago the North Island and north of the South Island were hit by one or more great tsunami. Sand, gravel and stones were strewn over coastal sand dunes more than 30m above sea level. (An earlier tsunami lifted a whale 35m above the ancient sea level.)

Given the widespread impact and that most Maori lived on coasts, a third of the population may have perished, similar to the proportion killed by the Black Death in Europe 650 years ago. Economic historians ponder the impact of the plague. Since the surviving population was left with the same land and capital, labour productivity and the economic surplus would have risen, triggering the West’s subsequent economic development.

But if bubonic plague was a neutron bomb killing people, the New Zealand tsunami were more like nuclear explosions destroying capital – dwellings, gardens, canoes, land and sea life – as well as people.

If the tsunami occurred during the day, it probably killed more women and children. Some men would have been inland or fishing at sea (ironically, one of the safer places). One can imagine their emotional devastation when they returned to the kaianga to find almost nothing left.

We don’t know much about what happened afterwards. Almost certainly the people would have collected any survivors from the shore and struggled inland bewildered and grieving. Later they would have tried to link up with other settlements, finding many just as devastated.

Archaeologist and surveyor Bruce McFadgen, whose Hostile Shores is the standard reference, argues the tsunami triggered a significant change to the way Maori lived. The kaianga they rebuilt were set further back from the sea. Single-hulled canoes replaced double-hulled ones. The quality of stone adzes declined, and fishing gear, ornaments and other artefacts were simplified. The whakapapa of some tribes go back to the 15th century but no further, possibly because many of the knowledgeable were lost under the waves.

Will the same thing happen to the Samoans and Tongans? Fortunately, proportionally more survived. Another critical difference is today’s communities are far more interdependent. One takes a little comfort from how quickly the rest of the world responded.

But although the countries had an immediate need for emergency relief, they also have an ongoing need for reconstruction, not simply to replace what has been lost, but to be part of a holistic economic and social development programme. It will be of such interest to economists, I hope to be able to report on it.

Prime Minister John Key mentioned $200 million for Samoa’s reconstruction. It’s a guess, but possibly in the right order of magnitude. On a per capita basis, that’s equivalent to $40 billion in New Zealand terms and you could then treble it, say, for Samoa being a poorer economy.

The Samoans cannot do it by themselves – not quickly anyway. We are going to have to contribute, both publicly and privately. It will be easy to comfort ourselves that we supported them (and the Tongans) in their emergency and then leave it to the (miserable) aid budget and our 130,000-strong Samoan and 50,000-strong Tongan communities. The problem is not that the rest of us are ungenerous, but that we move onto other things and forget. But like the Maori, one of whose memories opened this column, those who were there never will.