Rebuilding Infrastructure: City Care Ltd. CEO, Onno Mulder

Onno MulderWhat is your occupation?

I am the CEO of City Care Limited, an infrastructure maintenance company based in Christchurch, with 16 locations throughout New Zealand. City Care has an annual turnover of $350 million and growing. We employ more than 1500 people nationwide and 400 sub-contractors. We operate in the sectors of water, parks, facilities management and construction (of horizontal infrastructure).

Our clients are mostly local government authorities, who are the owners of most of New Zealand’s infrastructure assets. Our Christchurch client is the Christchurch City Council.

Describe the 2011 earthquake.

The February 2011 earthquake will probably be the defining event of my life – and the lives of most people in Christchurch.

The shock and sheer scale of the event defied understanding. The total destruction of our city’s landscape – both above and below ground – was completely overwhelming. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and never thought anything like it would happen here.

I’m not sure if people over on your side of the world realise that we actually experienced a quake of bigger magnitude (7.1M) in September, 2010 followed by thousands of aftershocks, so we had become somewhat accustomed to large earth movements and the resulting structural and psychological damage. But the February 6.3M quake was proximate, shallow and pointed directly at the CBD (the geographical center of Christchurch).

Around 50,000 people, including my corporate team and I, were in or near the CBD that day to witness buildings falling, widespread fear and panic, and catastrophic infrastructure collapse. Of course some people in the central city experienced even worse, but thankfully we lost no one on our staff in the quake.

After the initial shock, and ensuring that our people were safe, I soon realised that City Care would need to step up for the people of Christchurch, who had been severely traumatized and were facing the loss of not only their essential services, but also their livelihoods, homes, and even loved ones.

The damage to the city’s infrastructure was vast and devastating. 80% of the city lost water supply, with a similar proportion of households losing sewer function.

All over the city, pipes had twisted, buckled and shattered, with manholes and tanks ejected from the ground, ripping apart pipes and cables, and spewing water and sewage into the surrounding terrain.

Water and liquefaction silt covered large swathes of the eastern suburbs.

There was nothing to do but get dirty and start repairing broken infrastructure to restore urgent, essential services to the community. More than 1300 City Care staff and contractors worked to exhaustion, day and night to get services working again.

It was a time of constant change and challenge. I had to make critical decisions without having full knowledge of the situation, and give direction without having all the answers. I just had to trust that my 25 years of experience would help me make the right decisions.

What kind of infrastructure rebuilding had to take place post-quake?

There were two distinct parts of City Care’s post-earthquake work – the emergency response and then the rebuild of Christchurch’s infrastructure networks.

I’ve already tried to describe the scale and extent of the damage, and I feel proud and humbled by the efforts of our people during the emergency phase.

Within two days of the February quake, 95% of residents had their water back on, and we had deployed mobile water tankers and static water tanks to the remaining suburbs.

During the following weeks, ruined sewerage pipes were bypassed and hundreds of kilometres of pipe networks were cleared.

Thousands of portable chemical toilets were delivered to households and 500 temporary waste tanks were set up. The city’s water supply was chlorinated and 370,000 tonnes of silt was removed from streets and properties.

All in all, our people did five years worth of work in ten short months after the February quake.

The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuilt Team (SCIRT) was established to complete the monumental task of rebuilding Christchurch’s ruined infrastructure. SCIRT is made up of three owners and five contractors, including City Care.

Its owners are the Christchurch City Council, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (a central government agency), and the New Zealand Transport Authority.

SCIRT has a projected $2.5 billion spending budget over a period of five years, ending in December 2016.

City Care’s work within the SCIRT alliance is to rebuild future-ready water, wastewater, stormwater and road networks in conjunction with the asset owners, Christchurch City Council.

What was your personal involvement in the rebuilding process?

After the September, 2010 earthquake, I took up the position of joint emergency controller for City Care, but after the February, 2011 event, I remained in my position as CEO. I became very closely involved in the formation and set-up of SCIRT, and have been serving as the Chairman of SCIRT since mid-2012.

What was your biggest challenge in the rebuilding process?

From my perspective, the biggest challenge is still the on-going uncertainty. The sheer scale of the damage, and the subsequent repair and rebuild, are just so huge that it’s almost beyond comprehension.

And believe it or not, new damage is still being discovered every day as we continue to dig up the city’s buried horizontal infrastructure.

Another very trying feature of this earthquake sequence is that there have been so many aftershocks of significant magnitude.

Several times over the last two years City Care people have worked tirelessly to patch up damaged services only to have all their work undone in a few brief seconds of a powerful aftershock. Then it’s right back to square one again!

How long will it take before the rebuilding is complete?

Much of our city’s horizontal infrastructure will be rebuilt to higher standards and thus will be much more resilient to future large earthquakes. And while we’re all still reeling from the loss of so much of Christchurch’s heritage, the city landscape promises to be extraordinary. I think people are starting to get very excited about the new city that’s starting to take shape around us.

The infrastructure rebuild work will be completed by December 2016.


This damaged church building was one of countless historical buildings that were severely damaged in the earthquake in 2011. Photograph courtesy of Warren and Kerry Goddard.

This damaged church building was one of countless historical buildings that were severely damaged in the earthquake in 2011. Photograph courtesy of Warren and Kerry Goddard.

Christchurch residents are still attempting to repair the billions of dollars worth of damages sustained to their city's infrastructure 2 years ago. Photograph courtesy of Warren and Kerry Goddard.

Christchurch residents are still attempting to repair the billions of dollars worth of damages sustained to their city’s infrastructure 2 years ago. Photograph courtesy of Warren and Kerry Goddard.


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