20 Nov 2015

South Dunedin considers sea level threat

8:42 am on 20 November 2015

South Dunedin's people know the water is rising beneath them but they are trying very hard not to think about it.

Surrey Street, South Dunedin.

Several streets - including Surrey Street, pictured - were submerged in June's flood in South Dunedin. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

"Well, we're sea level virtually, aren't we? You dig in the garden and you find the water's coming up, so it's logical," Macandrew Road resident Maureen Donnelly said.

"I have to say yep, it's a concern, but I suppose ... I'm not young anymore and if a tsunami gets me, it gets me."

Around the corner, I came across Justin Booth repairing one of the 10 houses he owns and rents out in South Dunedin.

"I'm not a greenie," he said. "Sure, the sea level might be rising and that - I don't know. I'm just a hard-working guy who looks after my house and whatever happens, happens."

A major flood in June, which damaged about 1250 properties, has forced climate change into people's minds, but Mr Booth said it was up to the council to sort it out.

There was so much money in the property around here, he said, the authorities were bound to do something.

"They aren't going to let the water come over the hill and flood South Dunedin."

A report released yesterday by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright made it clear the problem of rising sea levels was just beginning, calling it a slowly unfolding red zone.

Dr Wright found 2800 homes and businesses in South Dunedin would be among the first at risk from sea level rises of half a metre.

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A breakdown of low-lying areas in South Dunedin taken from Dr Wright's report. Photo: Preparing New Zealand for Rising Seas report

Rising global temperatures are predicted to melt ice caps, raise the sea level and send in more storms and floods. After June's floods, there was talk about managed retreat.

But, walking her dog down a windy street, Lisa Rickerby said the idea of abandoning parts of South Dunedin was ridiculous.

She would like to see the council focus more on maintaining and unblocking the drains so the area did not flood again.

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull said the report showed rising sea levels was one of the most serious issues in the city, because South Dunedin was a relatively densely populated area yet overall older and poorer.

The city did not yet know if, or how, many parts of South Dunedin would one day become untenable, Mr Cull said.

But there must soon be a whole-of-city conversation about the area's future, he said.

"If, for instance, large chunks of South Dunedin had to be retreated from in the future, that has effects on the rest of city, and all of its infrastructure plans.

"This is not something we say 'here's the problem, here's the solution, council's going to do it'. That can't be the way we go about it."

When gently pushed, Maureen Donnelly said it was probably time to start talking about the area's future - but not until Christmas at least was out of the way.

It could be a slow and painful conversation.

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