Dozens of communities at serious flood risk, unprepared - report

By Katie Scotcher for RNZ

A Government report has for the first time identified dozens of communities at serious risk of flooding and totally unprepared for it.

Westport was hit by devastating flooding in July 2021, prompting the government to take a closer look at just how bad the risk there is.

The report found Westport is extremely vulnerable to flooding with little protection in place to prevent it and because of the low median household income there local authorities can't fund the work needed to protect the town through rates.

It also examined the risk nationwide and identified 44 communities in the same boat.

These communities were spread across 12 regions with more than half in the upper North Island.

Ministers are now considering how to help flood-risk communities and abandoning these areas altogether is on the table.

Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty said the reality was most areas of New Zealand were at risk of severe weather events.

"We know that New Zealand is prone to weather events and we also know with climate change that those weather events are becoming more severe and more frequent.

"So if we are going to plan and put provisions in place we need to have a clearer understanding as to what we're dealing with. This report painted a pretty grim picture but it is also the reality and it's important information for any planning going forward."

"We can't do it on our own"

Nine of the communities flagged in the report as being at risk are in Gisborne.

The region's mayor, Rehette Stoltz, said that was not unexpected.

"If we just look back at the last three years, with all of the flooding events we have experienced here, it's absolutely no surprise."

Stoltz said there were some flood protection projects included in the council's 10-year plan.

"We are such a spread out community, there are so many different smaller communities that do need that attention that we will have to talk to the government to see how they can assist us to protect those communities.

"We live in a high deprivation community, so we cannot leverage everything off rates ... for us, we will have to talk to the government to see how we can work together to address this issue. We cannot do it on our own."

McAnulty said some regions were having difficult conversations with isolated communities, as they couldn't afford to fix damaged roads.

"That's not going to be an isolated incident, that's going to be commonplace across the country, as climate change continues to bite.

"For example, in Marlborough, last year, July 2021, there was roughly $85 million of damage done to the local roads, the government kicked in with 95 percent to cover that. And then earlier this year, in August, the weather event, which is still being assessed, is likely to cause more damage. That's unsustainable going forward.

"There's some pretty big discussions and decisions to be made there at a local level, the government also has to get its head around what role it can play in that as well."

Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty.
Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty. Photo credit: Newshub

Managed retreats

McAnulty said the government was now considering how to help those communities most at risk and all options, including total abandonment of areas, were on the table.

"I think we need to consider all options...but often, we look at the extremes like managed retreat. We've seen examples over in Australia where whole communities have been moved out of a vulnerable location.

"When these towns and communities were set up, it made sense to put them where they are. There was no way they could have anticipated the climate change would have wreaked havoc that it is now and will in the future."

McAnulty said the option of managed retreats in areas at high risk of flooding was a "massive conversation" that needed to be had.

"It's hugely disruptive and it will cause a lot of anxiety but if we are going to be considering all options that are on the table we need to have the information available and that's why this report has been so useful."

The government's long-term strategy to deal with the effects of climate change - the National Adaptation Plan - sets out how managed retreat could work.

It defined managed retreat as the process of abandoning places where the risk from hazards, like flooding or erosion, make it no longer viable to live.

The plan said costs would be shared between homeowners, local and central government, insurance companies and banks.

It also said legislation would be needed to support managed retreat, including reform of the Resource Management Act and a new Climate Adaptation Bill which will set out the managed retreat framework and is due for completion next year.

McAnulty would not say when any decisions about assistance for communities would be made.

Affected areas

They include Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Hokianga Harbour/Region, Helena Bay and Ruawai in the Northland region and Waiuku in Auckland.

In Waikato, it's Thames, Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, Taupiri, Putāruru, Tokoroa, Te Kuiti, Benneydale/Maniaiti and Tūrangi.

Waihi Beach/Bowentown, Maketu, Te Puke, Ōpōtiki, Rotorua and Lake Ōkāreka are identified in Bay of Plenty.

In Gisborne it's Tikitiki, Ruatoria, Tuparoa, Whareponga, Waipiro Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Tologa Bay/Hauiti, Te Karaka and Gisborne itself.

The report identified Waitara and New Plymouth in Taranaki, Whanganui in the Whanganui/Manawatū region and Ōtaki/Ōtaki Beach, the Kapiti Coast from Waikanae to Paekākāriki and Masterton in Wellington.

In the South Island, Nelson, Hector, Granity, Westport, Kairaki Beach, South Dunedin, Mosgiel and Balclutha were identified.