Counting the cost of sea level rise

Damage in Edgecumbe after the flood.

Damage in Edgecumbe after the flood.

ANALYSIS: If you knew a major natural disaster was on its way, likely to affect some of the smallest, most vulnerable parts of the country, you might expect a national response to be under way.

We already know such a disaster is certain; unlike the future's earthquakes, we have a head-start. 

This disaster is referred to in a yet-to-be-released Government climate change report, leaked to media this week. It cited some very large numbers, some with dollar signs attached, relating to the risk New Zealand is carrying in relation to rising sea levels.

They came from a "risk census" undertaken by NIWA for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in 2015. It was the first attempt to catalogue where our most vulnerable assets are, so authorities can prepare to respond.

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There are more than $19 billion worth of buildings at-risk nationwide, in areas where 130,000 people live. In Christchurch alone, there are $3.2b worth of buildings and 30,000 residents living in at-risk, low-lying areas.

Hawke's Bay has $2.8b and 25,000 residents in at-risk areas; Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin and Lower Hutt each have more than $1b at stake.

The major cities only account for half the stocktake. The rest is scattered across the country, in small districts far less capable of responding to a disaster.

The data shows that while some small communities risk liability for enormous bills, nearby cities may face no risk at all.

One of the few places that will escape the effects of sea-level rise is Hamilton. According to the risk census, its at-risk assets are worth $0 – it doesn't have any.

About an hour away, across the Hauraki Plains, is Ngatea, a small service town of 1300 on the firth of Thames.

Ngatea's low-lying assets are valued at $175 million; the entire community is less than 50 centimetres above the mean high water springs. 

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If a major storm hit Ngatea tomorrow, it would largely be up to the Hauraki District Council – one of the country's smallest – to deal with the damage. It's the sort of problem the 120-times larger Hamilton city doesn't have to think about at all.

Local authorities have been pressing central government to take a bigger role on climate change issues, particularly in regard to this inequity.

Erosion in Hector on the West Coast is already damaging houses.

Erosion in Hector on the West Coast is already damaging houses.

Half of the country's mayors signed a declaration in July urging the Government to better prepare for climate change.

Local Government New Zealand's (LGNZ) 2050 vision statement referenced climate change 61 times, and mentioned "stark differences" in how communities will be affected.

The group had already recommended a nation-wide fund, similar to the Earthquake Commission, for responding to climate change.

Flooding in Christchurch in July.

Flooding in Christchurch in July.

Even out-going LGNZ president Lawrence Yule, a National party candidate, said the Government hadn't done enough and climate change was "far bigger than what we are equipped to deal with now".

The data shows there are many more communities like Ngatea. Whakatane has $500m of at-risk assets; Motueka has $400m, as does Thames.

Whitianga has $170m, Dargaville has $120m, Gisborne has $75m, Ngunguru has $70m, Tairua has $50m. It's a long list.

The risk census was an underestimate, as it did not include five regions that do not have elevation data. It doesn't account for towns like Granity and Hector on the West Coast, which are on the frontline.

About the time the Government's report was completed, Edgecumbe was being assailed by the remnants of a cyclone. Nearly the entire town was evacuated, and some residents were permanently displaced.

The Whakatane district's ratepayers are paying for much of the damage, which was around $20m.

According to the risk census, Edgecumbe's at-risk buildings were worth $30m – in a nationwide ranking of the most risk-exposed communities, it would be 34th.

The question is what happens when an event like Edgecumbe is scaled up. 

Those events are what sea-level rise will look like in New Zealand. The damage is caused by sudden, dramatic events like storms, which are inherently unpredictable and will become more so.

When Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright released a report into coastal hazards in 2015, she made a rare recommendation to then-Finance Minister Bill English: she recommended a working group start preparing for the costs associated with sea-level rise.

He rejected her recommendation, citing the unpredictability of climate change which made planning difficult.

His Government's leaked report contradicts him: it said waiting for uncertainties to reduce was "usually not viable or acceptable" to those most exposed to risk. 

There have been two leaders debates thus far, and the topic of this looming disaster has yet to come up.

We've already counted the cost. Who will pay the bill?

 - Stuff

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