That sinking feeling: the Edgecumbe review and our climate change blinkers

An independent report led by Sir Michael Cullen into the failure of Edgecumbe’s stopbank has reported that Edgecumbe residents were not sufficiently warned of flood risks and no evacuation plans were in place. The media is fixated on blame, and given the impact on the lives of local residents, it seems an obvious question to ask. My attention was caught by the later comments in the report about the need to respond to a changing climate.

Climate change is mentioned eight times in 163 pages, seven of those instances in the last 50 pages in which there are extended consideration of mitigation. I was mollified that there was some mention of climate change, as there is a tendency to dance around the issue.

However, most of the discussion of climate change was to cast doubt on the current mitigation strategies with no mention of practical future solutions. Traditionally we have concentrated on river confinement and higher stopbanks. However, the report quite rightly points out that river confinement and higher stopbanks are inadequate in light of the estimates of the impact of climate change, and in this vein the report is critical of the 2004 strategy document and then the 2014-2025 Infrastructure Strategy Plan.

But whilst the report notes “the near-certainty that climate change is leading to more severe and more frequent extreme weather events of the sort that occurred in April this year,” it doesn’t provide any thought as to what we may do, other than giving rivers more room and supporting “long term sustainable flood risk management solutions.”

An acquaintance has a parent in Edgecumbe who has already received an insurance payout and the house is being repaired. At a personal level, this is great to hear as one person can see an end date to the misery of this tragedy where they will return to their normal life. However, I worry about people rebuilding houses in Edgecumbe; this acquaintance’s parent has not had any advice nor financial support to raise the house up on stilts or any alterations to take account of future flooding events, which seems crazed given that Edgecumbe is on plains that are often below sea level.

There needs to be some honesty in this discussion: the current estimates of the impact of climate change indicate that in this century, coastal and flood plain settlements in the Bay of Plenty like Edgecumbe, Matatā, Opotiki, Whakatāne, Pāpāmoa, and Mt Maunganui cannot all be practicably provided sufficient protection from sea level rise and flood events. So long term flood risk management solutions in some areas of the Bay of Plenty could look more and more like what the Whakatāne District Council are positing in Matatā: extinguishing existing use-rights.

Rebuilding at ground level in Edgecumbe is madness; it boggles the mind. The stopbank cannot be raised to a sufficient level that will stop future flooding events because of the power of the water behind that stopbank. The river will have its way.

Regional and district councils do not speak so plainly. Democracy restricts them from leading, as it would be political suicide for local government politicians to seek a mandate to declare whole areas of coast unavailable to residential development; after all, who wants the New Zealand summer holiday dreams to be ruined by reality? Finances also restrict them, as any council who admits that problem will then, quite rightly,  be asked for a solution, which costs money their rate payer base cannot provide.

With the tendency to circuitous speeches and reports, is it any surprise that Edgecumbe residents have reacted angrily to the report. A resident on Morning Report was clear he had no idea that his house sat in a flood zone. That information was probably available, but councils, Civil Defence and real estate agents have more responsibility than having information available if you ask the right questions; they need to proactively inform people of the risks.

My view is that Doug Leeder has proven to be an effective and well-intentioned Chair of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council. So perhaps we can take him at his word when he says:

“We will not shy away from the conversations that must be held with those who set the legislation around how best to manage climate change, what is an acceptable cost both financially and to the environment, and how to balance personal safety with personal choice.”

However, the challenge is likely far beyond the resources and decision-making powers of regional and district councils. It is one more climate change headache for central government.

Frankly another report that bemoans the problem is not a lot of use; it’s time to lay out some difficult solutions to local communities. Unfortunately I suspect the proposed local government solution and the residents’ anger in Matatā will be a template for how this is going to go in the foreseeable future.