Whakaoranga Ōtautahi: A pre-emptive Māori approach towards actioning the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in Christchurch, New Zealand

Māori indigenous knowledge, values and practices enhance disaster management, earthquake recovery and community resilience in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

by Dr Christine Kenney PhD and Dr Suzanne Phibbs PhD

Dr Christine Kenney PhD

Dr Christine Kenney (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Toarangatira), the Principal Investigator for this research project, leads the Indigenous Disaster Research programme at the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University/GNS Science, and is the Senior Research Fellow at the IRDR International Centre of Research Excellence in Community Resilience.

Dr Suzanne Phibbs PhD

Dr Suzanne Phibbs is a Māori Health Sociologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Health at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. She worked with the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University and Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu documenting Māori responses to the Canterbury earthquakes.

The 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes caused extensive damage in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anecdotal evidence suggested that Māori responded effectively to facilitate community recovery and resilience. As Māori cultural attributes that are protective in times of adversity had rarely been documented, research was conducted in partnership with the Christchurch Iwi (tribe) Ngāi Tahu, to explore and record how Māori cultural factors facilitated disaster risk reduction and community recovery following the earthquakes. Research findings suggest that Māori values linked with understandings of cultural identity act as key strengths during adversity by promoting social behaviours and practices that facilitate community resilience. Therefore the Māori approach to earthquake recovery is an exemplar of best practice in accordance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015). This globally accepted framework requires emergency management infrastructure engagement with local communities to embed cultural diversity in the creation of disaster management policies and implementation of recovery practices.


On the 4th of September 2010 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake occurred in Canterbury New Zealand heralding a sequence of earthquakes that caused wide spread devastation  within the region. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake centred under the country’s second largest city Christchurch, on February 22, 2011, caused injury to over 9000 inhabitants and the loss of 185 lives. The majority of residents experienced damaged homes, as well as prolonged loss of utilities such as power, water and sewerage, and damage to roads. The worst structural damage occurred in the central city, urban hillside region and coastal eastern suburbs with the latter area being affected by widespread liquefaction, while the central business district remained largely cordoned off until the 30th of June, 2013.

At the time of the earthquakes, 25,725 Māori lived in Christchurch comprising 7.3% of the population, while the local tribe Ngāi Tahu (10,965 individuals) was a minority (42%) group within the Māori demographic. The Māori population was concentrated in the lower socio-economic Eastern suburbs suggesting that in comparison to the wider community, Māori were disproportionately affected in terms of reduced resources, access to basic necessities, sanitation, power, transport and support from responders. However, anecdotal stories of Māori community resilience in Eastern Christchurch indicated that local Māori had drawn on cultural attributes to create effective earthquake response and recovery initiatives.

Research Design

The Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University partnered with Ngāi Tahu to explore and document the effective Māori disaster management approaches that were drawn on in Christchurch. A qualitative research approach based on Ngāi Tahu values shaped the community-based participatory project. Seventy Māori participated in research interviews during which information about Māori understandings and practices associated with risk reduction and mitigation, as well as disaster preparedness, response and recovery was gathered.

The Māori Earthquake Recovery Response 

photoThe Māori Recovery Network was collaboratively established within 24 hours of the February 22, 2011, earthquake at an earthquake response strategy development meeting, which was held at Rēhua marae (the central city Ngāi Tahu community centre) on February 23, 2011. The meeting was attended by over 60 representatives from a range of organisations including Te Rūnanga o Ngā Maata Waka, (Christchurch Urban Māori Authority), Te Puni Kōkiri (Ministry of Māori Development), the Te Tai Tonga (Southern Māori) electorate, the New Zealand Police, and the Ōtautahi Māori Warden’s Association. At the meeting it was agreed that the network would focus upon ensuring that the mainstream response to the earthquakes was inclusive of, and accessible to, the diverse communities in Christchurch.  Attendees also agreed that the Māori response would be led by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and driven by Māori values. A community responder described the creation of the initial mission statement: “On the first day the leaders adopted a theme – ‘aroha nui ki te tangata’ love to all people – so it didn’t matter who we come up against, we helped them” (MW). The Māori value ‘aroha nui ki te tangata’ signalled that local Māori community intended to provide support to the entire population not just the local Māori community, and this message was reinforced in media releases from the Māori Recovery Network.

Research Findings

Māori emergency management capability as well as capacity is evident in the actions of the Māori Recovery Network following the February 22, 2011, earthquakes.  Historically, marae (Māori community centres) provide a sense of place that is central to Māori collective identity and wellbeing as well as rapidly mobilised centres of support that unite Māori communities when adversity strikes. Ngāi Tahu marae opened immediately following the February earthquake and provided shelter, food, water, hospitality as well as access to health services and social support to the wider community. Whānau (families), the core units of Māori cultural capital, operationalise marae. Familial networks enacted whanaungatanga (social relationships) through sharing resources, providing emergency accommodation, ensuring the safety of family members, staffing marae, securing and/or clearing damaged property and assisting Christchurch residents to negotiate the bureaucracy of responding government agencies. Other tribal risk mitigation initiatives included establishing a 24 hour telephone help line, arranging financial support, receipt, storage and distribution of donated goods through makeshift offices at Wigram a disused air force base, logistical support for Māori wardens and ‘barefoot’ medical teams that were working in Eastern Christchurch, as well as liaison with government, NGOS and responding agencies. In total the entire Māori Recovery Network contacted and/or provided shelter, food, water clothing, toys, finance and other non-perishable goods to over 20,000 households following the February earthquake. Findings suggested that Māori values which are embedded in sets of understanding about identity act as cultural strengths during adversity through shaping social practices. In the Christchurch context exemplars included kotahitanga (enacting community unity), whakapapa (operationalising familial networks) whanaungatanga (utilising social relationships), manaakitanga (extending respect, support, hospitality), kaitakitanga (ensuring protection, guardianship) and marae (activating community support centres). The research outcomes also indicated that New Zealand’s Civil Defence Emergency Management policies and disaster risk reduction practices could be enhanced by the respectful integration of Māori knowledge and strategies.


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