Primary industries under threat thanks to 'inaction' against climate change - report

Changes in rainfall frequency and intensity are likely to be "significant" in coming years.
Changes in rainfall frequency and intensity are likely to be "significant" in coming years. Photo credit: Getty

A new report has issued a stark warning for the impact climate change could have on the country's primary industries.

The Hawke's Bay Region Water Security Economic Impact Assessment states if nothing is done in the face of climate change there will be a considerable drop to the region's GDP and community wellbeing in the future.

By the middle of the century, the region's income could drop by up to $120 million a year, according to some modelled scenarios.

"We often talk about growth opportunities but we hardly ever consider the cost and implications of inaction," says Rex Graham, chair of Hawke's Bay Regional Council. 

Anita Wreford, an associate professor of agribusiness and economics at Lincoln University, says the report highlights the vulnerability of the primaries industries.

"The primary sector is very dependent on the climate and has developed around a historically stable climate," Dr Wreford told Newshub. 

"The changes projected (and already beginning to be experienced) will have important consequences for the sector in all parts of the country (although some may be more affected than others)."

Graham said water security and its effective management was one of the most significant challenges facing Hawke's Bay's economy, community and natural environment. 

In recent months a crippling drought has forced many farmers in the region to the point of desperation. Although the dry spell was finally broken after considerable rainfall last week and over the weekend, the drought's effect will continue to be felt into the winter.

Dr Wreford says changes in rainfall frequency and intensity are likely to be "significant" in coming years.

"[There will be] longer periods without rain followed by potentially intense rainfall, leading to flooding and crop damage," she said.

"The effect on water availability will be important as well, particularly as we have developed systems that rely on a regular supply of water. Other risks include an increase in pests and diseases, and higher temperatures leading to heat stress for both livestock and some crops. A reduction in frosts and cold temperatures will have implications for certain crops that require periods of cold."

Graham said the report was "sobering" news for the council.

"We need to focus on developing a range of interventions, not just one or two solutions, to be resilient in our future supplies of water that match our future demand, particularly relating to climate change."

The report recommended the council consider the value of "possible resilience-building initiatives".

"The regional council has already directed staff to accelerate our water security programme to urgently investigate storage options to increase the supply of water in Central Hawke's Bay and Heretaunga," Graham said.

He said storage and augmentation were just some of the solutions available.

"We will need to use other levers as well, like the allocation policy through proposed freshwater plan changes, water conservation initiatives and efficient use. This sits alongside the huge amount of work the council already does in relation to water quality, which cannot be compromised."

Dr Wreford said it was possible to adapt to many of the challenges posed by climate change "if we begin planning now".

It was necessary to not only identify the options we have in the short term, she said, but also to plan long-term "ensuring we are not locking ourselves into types of production in locations that are likely to be adversely affected in the future".

"Flexibility is key. Diversifying our systems more can make them more resilient to climate changes as well as potentially reducing emissions, improving water quality and biodiversity, depending on the production mix."

Failure to act could lead to social disruption and economic disruption and hardship, Dr Wreford said.

"Responsibility really lies at all scales, from national, to regional, local, and individual producers as well."