Climate change could spell 'extreme poverty' in coastal NZ towns
In the West Coast coal mining town of Granity, the relentless sea moves closer by the day.
The shoreline has been eroding for many years. Now the Tasman sea has snuck into some of the beach-front properties. Great waves flood backyards, garages have been mangled.
With rising sea levels and more intense storms likely because of a warming climate, parts of Granity will become uninhabitable.
It will be several decades before coastal hazards reach a critical point in the larger places most at risk, but in small pockets of the country the problem has already arrived. The dangers of the future can no longer be avoided.
There is no clear number of New Zealand properties threatened by coastal hazards, but thousands of homes are deemed likely at risk.
Residents of Granity and nearby Hector are holding the line against the sea. Expert advice from NIWA is to move away from the shore, but some cannot, or will not, move.
Instead, some have built expensive seawalls, which may buy them some time.
Gavin Sykes dipped into his retirement savings to fortify his backyard with rocks, using his own digger.
"We can't all afford to have $45,000 sea walls installed," he said.
"We've done what we can do. I'm 63... what am I meant to do? Where am I going to live, in a car or something?"
Several others living on the beach cannot sell their homes. The cost of insurance will soon increase, or – in Sykes' case – be cut off.
"There's quite a few people worried about their future," said Penny Madden, who lives in Hector.
"A lot of people don't have a lot of money. I'd like to sell up and move, but who's going to buy it, frankly. I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
A 'SLOWLY UNFOLDING RED ZONE'
The median household income in Granity is half the national average. It scores a nine out of 10 on the national socio-economic deprivation index, 10 being most deprived.
Many of those threatened by coastal hazards are among the least-equipped to deal with them, data shows. It adds to the uncertainty about how authorities will respond to a growing issue worldwide.
A 2015 report by Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment Dr Jan Wright identified about 9000 properties that were less than 50cm above spring high tide levels, almost certainly at risk of future hazards.
The largest number were in South Dunedin, with substantial numbers in Napier, Christchurch and the Hutt Valley.
The figures were likely to be underestimated, considering accurate elevation data was not available for areas such as the West Coast.
Wright emphasised the long-term nature of coastal hazards in her report, likening it to a "slowly unfolding red-zone" – it would require cautious, deliberate and, perhaps most importantly, empathetic planning.
Small pockets around the country, such as the coastal West Coast settlements, indicate what to expect.
CLIMATE CHANGE COULD 'EXACERBATE EXTREME POVERTY'
In South Dunedin - a suburb on flat land reclaimed from the sea - a 2015 storm caused about $138m in damage, according to insurer IAG figures.
The community has thousands of homes at risk of flooding because of its proximity to the water table. It has a deprivation score of 10, making it one of the country's poorest communities.
Tahunanui, a low-lying Nelson suburb on a shoreline with a long-term erosion trend, has a deprivation score of nine. Edgecumbe in the Bay of Plenty, which faced disastrous flooding early this month, scores a nine. Cobden and Rapahoe, both on the West Coast, have deprivation scores of nine and eight respectively.
It presents a quandary. Will the first people to lose their homes or be forced to shift inland – likely within the next decade – set a standard for everywhere else?
The insurance industry relies on anticipating risk. It has warned about the uncertainty around hazards for years.
"With climate change, we know with certain probabilistic scenarios what will happen, but ... the data isn't really available regarding the degree," Insurance Council chief executive Tim Grafton said.
Local Government NZ has pushed for a national fund to be used when communities need to shift.
In a recent discussion document, it identified the likelihood of "domestic climate refugees," which councils would need to manage.
"Since coastal communities will be some of the worst affected by climate change, climate change might exacerbate extreme poverty for those poorer coastal communities, which do not have the financial resources required to relocate," it said.
"These decisions need to be made in a consistent way – and with adaptation required right now, the future implications of 'precedent setting' actions must be understood and taken into account."
The Ministry for the Environment was updating its guidance to councils on coastal hazard risks, a spokesman said.
Minister for Climate Change Issues Paula Bennett had established a technical group that would advise the government on "how New Zealand can build resilience and adapt to the effects of climate change including sea level rise".
In Hector, at a public meeting last year, residents expressed anger at the seeming lack of action.
The expectation was something would be done.
"What, are we just walking away from our home?" Gavin Sykes said.
"Nah, we're going to fight it all the way. Where do we go?"