Fears Te Tai Tokerau communities could be wiped out by climate change

By Contributor

Flooding has heavily impacted Northland in recent years. Photo / File / Facebook / Supplied

By Susan Botting, Local Democracy Reporter

Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty will soon visit Northland to check out vulnerable communities that could potentially be forced into managed retreat in the face of climate-change induced flooding risk.

A new government report has identified the Far North's Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Hokianga Harbour, Whangārei's Helena Bay and Kaipara's Ruawai among 44 communities nationwide at risk of major flooding as climate change impacts bite.

The Far North in particular was singled out for having a significant proportion of its population in vulnerable communities which were potentially exposed to flooding.

The minister intended to visit Northland in the near future, a spokesperson said.

McAnulty said the government was now looking at how to help the most at-risk communities.

"The government is considering all options facing communities at risk of the effects of climate change," McAnulty said.

He recently told RNZ these included total abandonment of areas. The option of managed retreats in areas of high flooding risk was a "massive conversation" that needed to be had.

News of potentially having to abandon flood-challenged communities in the face of climate change shocked Pawarenga resident Rose Peri-Graham.

Peri-Graham lives at Pawarenga on the shores of Whangāpe Harbour, about a kilometre beyond the end of Pawarenga Rd. She accesses her home via Shelley Beach, accessible only at low tide. Her whare (home) is not far from Taiao Marae, also accessed via the beach and about 500 metres beyond the end of the road.

"Climate change is real," she said.

But that did not mean she would be leaving her land.

"We are not leaving our whenua, that's out tupuna land," Peri-Graham said.

"For Māori leaving our land would mean not being alive. Whenua is the essence of your wairua."

Peri-Graham was born in Pawarenga, left as a young person to shift to Kaitāia then on to Australia before returning to her family land in the remote, tiny settlement about 15 years ago.

She said leaving previously had been voluntary, being forced to move by increased flooding and sea level rise due to climate change was different.

"I am shocked. I am welling up thinking about it," Peri-Graham said.

"It would be the end of the world."

The Pawarenga community had long dealt with flooding and was resilient. It did not been to be abandoned or face managed retreat.

Far North Kahika (Mayor) Moko Tepania said his council was aware of the challenges potentially facing vulnerable communities in his district.

Tepania said the council had its own climate change roadmap.

Climate change was one of the major issues facing his council and would be further considered.

Tepania said there were conversations, with communities, still to come on when and how and where managed retreat might be needed. FNDC was developing its mahi around this, in order to be able to have these conversations.

Northland's joint climate change adaptation committee former chair Amy Macdonald said the latest government report was not new for Northland.

Macdonald said NRC had up-to-date flood and coastal erosion hazard mapping that had already identified at-risk communities.

She said the point had now been reached where there had to be work done with communities around where to from here.

"There are some really complex conversations we have to have in the next short while," Macdonald said.

"Northland councils are preparing for this but are really only just beginning," she said.

In April Northland became the first region in New Zealand to have a joint inter-council climate adaption strategy signed up to by NRC, FNDC, Whangārei District Council (WDC) and NRC.

Macdonald said it was good to see the government acknowledging how it might help communities.

Meanwhile, in response to Kaitāia being included in the report, Northland Regional Council (NRC) councillor Joe Carr said the town had been identified by in the past as Northland's most at-risk place in a Northland Civil Defence sense when it came to flooding risk, due to the Awanui River being part of the town's landscape.

Carr, also chair of the Awanui River Flood Management Advisory Committee, said NRC had, with government financial assistance, been able to spend millions on flood protection work for the town.

This had resulted in huge benefit in July's massive one-in-500-year rains that resulted in State Highway One over the Mangamukas being shut again. This would normally have flooded the town.

"But we had freeboard this time," Carr said.

He said there was further work that could be done to protect Kaitāia such as an upstream detention dam, but it was not necessary to abandon the town in the face of flooding challenge.

Meanwhile, in response to the inclusion of Ruawai in the report, Ruawai's Raupo Drainage Committee chairperson Ian Beattie said abandoning 8000 hectares of flats protected by a network of stopbanks, floodgates and drainage channels was not necessary. Beattie was also part of the community climate adaptation panel recently set up in Ruawai.

Ruawai Raupo's flat land wa at sea level and in some places below sea level, protected by stopbanks that were up to four metres high fronting the Kaipara Harbour.

Beattie said his committee already had a plan for protection work needed into the future. The full cost of required infrastructure for this plan could not be met only by targeted rates for those in the drainage scheme, which protected farming and the wider business and residential community.

He said suggestion of the community having to move were a case of politics rather than science driving the debate.

"I would like to issue a personal invitation to Associate Minister McAnulty to visit our drainage scheme and see for himself how we are well protected," Beattie said.

Ruawai was in December last year selected as Northland's first settlement to pilot new community climate change adaptation work.

Kaipara Mayor Craig Jepson took issue with the new government report.

Jepson said he found the new government report McAnulty had released "disturbing".

The mayor said he was a climate change realist.

He said the sea level rise figures being used for Ruawai by his council and NRC were based on a sea level rise of about 1.5m in the next 150 years. This contrasted with NIWA figures that used 2.24mm annually or about 24 centimetres over the next 100 years.

"That's hardly something that should be alarming the people of Ruawai," Jepson said.

It was a case of politics dictating science. Rules banning Ruawai subdivision and requiring any new house builds to be raised were a theft of private property rights.

Kerikeri Residents and Ratepayers Group president Jane Johnston said mention of her town in the new report did not realistically refer to its urban centre.

She said flood hazard mitigation work was needed for the area between Kerikeri and Waipapa which was prone to flooding, and had been investigated by NRC in the past.

Among its benefits would be protecting New Zealand's historic Kemp House and Stone Store as well as State Highway 10 which ran through the area.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air