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Rebuild or relocate? Climate crisis leaves New Zealand coastal communities with tough choice | New Zealand

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The tiny village of Westport is no stranger to a deluge – the South Island’s oldest European village is on the west coast of New Zealand, which holds the unenviable gong for the highest annual rainfall from the country. He also knows about flooding. The community of less than 5,000 people is perched on the low banks of the Buller River, a wide, capricious waterway that flows into the Tasman Sea.

In 1926, the river broke its banks and flooded the city, causing widespread devastation. There have been many floods since, but until this year she had escaped disaster with the establishment of an artificial overflow channel in the Orowaiti River, regular dredging and training walls of the river.

But, on July 15, torrential rains set in and did not stop for three days. The region recorded 700mm of rain – the equivalent of a month – in 72 hours. The ensuing floods left around 70 homes uninhabitable, another 400 in need of serious repair and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and agriculture.

Rebuild or relocate?  Climate crisis leaves New Zealand coastal communities with tough choice |  New Zealand

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New Zealand Defense Forces are helping a resident to evacuate Buller District in July. Photograph: Corporal Sean Spivey / New Zealand Defense Forces

The outlook for places like Westport is not good and begs the question: are they rebuilding or moving?

“These are very difficult and difficult conversations you have with the owners. In a way, you get a bit of a New Zealand attitude of ‘she’ll be right’ when in the long run she won’t be right, ”says Stuart Crosby, President of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ).

Westport is a flood-prone area, but the regularity of flooding is exacerbated by extreme weather conditions, and its disastrous effects are intensified by sea level rise, both caused by human activity.

The risk of litigation

It is not the only city which will have to confront the question of controlled decline in the years to come. In 2019, around 72,000 people in New Zealand were at risk from coastal flooding – around 50,000 homes worth at least $ 12.5 billion. About 43,000 Auckland residents are directly threatened by rising sea levels, and at least 10,000 homes in New Zealand’s four major coastal cities are at risk of becoming uninsurable over the next 30 years.

LGNZ puts the amount of local infrastructure exposed to sea level rise at around $ 14 billion, but adds that this is a conservative estimate.

The burden and complexities of managing exposure to sea level rise and other extreme weather events fall primarily on regional councils, with few central government officials to rely on.

Rebuild or relocate?  Climate crisis leaves New Zealand coastal communities with tough choice |  New Zealand

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A house destroyed by coastal erosion and sea level rise, Haumoana Beach, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Photograph: Geoff Marshall / Alamy

“The councils are at the forefront of tackling climate change and we have been asking successive governments to develop an adaptation framework for some time,” said Crosby.

Not only do municipalities need to take an ad hoc approach to dealing with crises as they arise, but trying to prevent future crises exposes them to litigation from developers and wealthy landowners.

In trying to include information about the dangers in land briefing memoranda – a summary of public ownership – they have faced costly lawsuits from landowners who fear it will diminish value. of their land.

Crosby said the lack of a standard framework limits advice and said there was “no way for councils on their own to support communities through adaptation.”

He said that as the government began to take the issue seriously, he feared too much emphasis was placed on stopping future developments and not creating a process for existing communities.

“It’s a conversation that has taken a long time and frankly we need to speed it up and create some certainty for the boards.”

Climate leases on properties?

When Belinda Storey, climate change economist and coastal erosion insurance expert, walks along Cooks Beach in the Coromandel, she is in despair.

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An Antarctic explosion swept across New Zealand in June, raising waves of up to 6 meters near Wellington’s south coast. Photograph: Xinhua / REX / Shutterstock

“There is a house, where the driveway in front of the house has been washed away, and they are currently building a very large house. It’s all along the waterfront – these massive houses are under construction and the land is eroding.

When Storey held workshops for communities on sea level rise, people often suggested setting up a public insurer, which she adds would only encourage development in places to go. risk.

Storey also rejects solutions that rely on dikes or stopping banks, saying it can cause erosion in other areas when the water is pushed to the side, and it only pushes the box over. the road.

She says if people build in coastal areas, that should come with limitations, in the form of a climate lease. This would mean that there is a time stamp on the property to say that it can only be used for the next, say, 40 or 100 years, depending on the risk to the site.

“Right now people are building and they don’t believe a sea level rise is going to happen, or they assume that if something does happen, someone will intervene,” Storey said.

“In a way, they’re right – international evidence clearly shows that in a disaster, when a house is damaged, the government finds it almost impossible not to intervene. “

But that’s the wrong approach, she said.

Ultimately, the onus must fall on future owners to demonstrate that their new construction will be safe for 100 years, rather than requiring the local government to prove it is not, Storey said.

It will not only be government regulation that will discourage development in the years to come, she said. First there will be a withdrawal from insurance, which will then lead to a withdrawal from bank loans, and then there will be a withdrawal from infrastructure as the cost of repairs continues.

“Retreat sometimes happens long before the land is gone. “

No one-size-fits-all approach

Earlier this year, the government announced it would reform the Resource Management Act (RMA) – a huge, outdated and nebulous law that has become something of a Frankenstein monster, with more than 20 changes since its introduction. in 1991.

The RMA will be replaced by three new pieces of legislation: a law on natural construction, a law on strategic construction and a law on climate adaptation. The first two components are well advanced, but it is not yet clear what the third will look like, which will deal with issues of controlled withdrawal and natural hazards.

National opposition Party Environment and Resource Management (RMA) spokesperson Scott Simpson is concerned that the latest bill will not be introduced with that term and that no one will know what its will be. settings.

Creating a framework to address the daunting challenges of managed retirement issues – particularly who pays – can take time, and there is a serious risk of doing more harm than good if it is poorly structured.

James Shaw, the climate change minister, who is due to attend the Cop26 climate change summit next week, said the examples of extreme weather and coastal flooding affecting towns such as Westport and Matatā in the Coromandel are the canaries of the coal mine for what is to come.

“New Zealanders are complacent, but it’s not their fault,” he said.

In parts of Europe and in countries like Australia and the United States, where there have been “biblical firestorms” and heat waves, people have a very real, lived experience of climate change. .

Rebuild or relocate?  Climate crisis leaves New Zealand coastal communities with tough choice |  New Zealand

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New legislation, intended to replace the Resource Management Act, will address issues of managed withdrawal and natural hazards. Photograph: David Wall / Alamy

“New Zealand has been lucky because, given the unique nature of the climate, we have not experienced extreme events with the same frequency or severity, so we have not established a link between floods and climate change. “

But that is changing, he noted.

He sympathized with advice that “has pitted the central government in the ribs for many years” over the need for more support and cadres, adding that the previous government was not agile enough to deal with the problem.

RMA reforms are designed to do this, he said, and will include ensuring that there is no “one size fits all” approach.

He intends to table the bill on climate adaptation before the end of the government’s mandate in 2023.

The heavy question of “who pays” when a community faces retirement will “undoubtedly” cause tensions, Shaw said, adding that not all losses will be covered.

“Conversations are taking place at the cabinet level around fairness and ensuring that people who are already vulnerable, in a sociological sense, are not further disadvantaged by the transition.

“Because the issues are so controversial and the risk of having glaring inequalities in outcomes is so high, it’s really important that we make the right decisions. “

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