6 Nov 2016

Insight: Homes Under Threat from Climate Change

From Insight, 8:12 am on 6 November 2016

Weather-related emergencies in Dunedin, the Kapiti Coast and Whanganui have brought into sharp relief the challenge New Zealand faces from the effects of climate change.

More than 1200 properties were flooded in South Dunedin in 2015, while residents of Anzac Parade in Whanganui waited more than six months to get back into their homes after a devastating storm hit the region in the same year.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has described the country's response to sea-level rise and climate change as piecemeal, and challenged the government to show more leadership.

Woman stands in front of bungalow holding photos of flooded  home and surrounds in 2015

Kisa Coles' Anzac Parade home was almost completely submerged in the 2015 Whanganui flood. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Kisa Cole's three-bedroom Anzac Parade bungalow sits on a wide expanse of lawn and looks across the picturesque Kowhai Park to Whanganui River.

Three cars are parked in the driveway and a friend is over for a cup of tea in a suburban scene familiar to most New Zealanders.

In June last year that setting was turned on its head with a simple knock at the door.

"At about 10 o'clock at night a council staff member, a police officer and an army guy came to the door and told us to get out.

"That was it - just 'get out now' - so we left with nothing and at about half past twelve the house was flooded."

Ms Coles' home was swamped and her garage completely submerged in a one-in-130-year flood event.

Hers was one of about 200 properties evacuated when persistent rain in the Whanganui River catchment and a torrential localised downpour in the city combined to overwhelm flood protections and stormwater infrastructure.

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has warned that such scenes will become more common.

Dr Jan Wright

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright Photo: ©Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

In her 2015 report Preparing for Sea Level Rise: Certainty in Uncertainty, Dr Wright spelled out the risk the country faced.

More than 9000 homes in New Zealand sit on land less than 50cm above spring high tide levels, while sea levels have risen more than 20cm over the last century and are predicted to rise by more than 30cm over the next 50 years.

This would be exacerbated when storm surges coincided with king tides, meaning that flooding of coastal areas would become more frequent, more severe and more extensive - and erosion around New Zealand's coasts would become more widespread.

Collapsing  cliff above beach with  farm fence dangling off edge of pasture above.

An example of the erosion affecting the North Taranaki coastline Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Dr Wright said individual properties and whole communities would be affected and tough decisions needed to be made about what to protect and what to retreat from.

"I've described this as a slowly unfolding red zone, like the red zone in Christchurch, and people have got caught there through no fault of their own. It is very tough on those people.

"So on the one hand there need to be some very hard-headed financial decisions but also quite a lot of empathy for people caught in this situation."

She said there needed to be better direction from central government on how to plan for the effects of climate change.

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Minster for the Environment Nick Smith Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Minster for the Environment Nick Smith said the government was acting on many of Dr Wright's recommendations.

Dr Smith said the Resource Management Act was being amended to give greater weight to the management of natural hazards, including climate change.

The next step would be to draft a national policy statement on climate change hazards and the interrelated flooding and storm hazards.

"What the national policy statement will do is give more legal weighting and grunt to the issues of natural hazards and climate change in broader resource consents decision-making."

Dr Wright raised the idea of a EQC-like entity to compensate homeowners affected by climate change but it was not something Dr Smith favoured.

"You don't want the assumption being made 'hey, I know it's high risk, the LIM report tells me there's a risk of climate change, but I'm not going to worry about that risk because there is a promise from government that they will bail me out'.

"That would create the wrong incentives and that is why the government is cautious about creating an expectation of compensation or a bail-out in those circumstances."

Sue Bidrose stands in front of a playing field in South Dunedin

Dunedin City Council CEO Sue Bidrose says 3000 homes in the city lie less than 50cm above sea level. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

That position would be of concern to the chief executive of the Dunedin City Council, Sue Bidrose.

More than 3000 homes in the city lie at less than 50cm above sea level and, if the worse case scenario plays out, Dr Bidrose said Dunedin would need assistance.

"We've got a third of the problem of the country's challenge so that is why some of this is a central government issue.

"I've got 50,000 rating units, households, who simply can't afford to foot all of this bill on their own."

Dr Smith's position also offered little hope for Dave Zimmerman and other residents of East Beach in Waitara, who have been wrestling with the effects of erosion.

Big pieces of drift wood pile up near to corrugated shed and old beach home.

Storm debris litters the foreshore at East Beach, Waitara, just metres from homes. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

They fall outside of the New Plymouth District Council's existing policy, which only allows for the protection of strategic and significant community assets from erosion - not private properties.

"Basically we're going to get washed away. We need protection from the sea.

"Not only us down here but the whole country because of global warming. The seas are rising, and it's going to take the land away if nothing is done about it, and unfortunately that looks like what is going to happen down here."

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