Climate Adaptation Infrastructure Management Series Part 3
In this third part of the blog post series, Ross Waugh talks about New Zealand’s experiences with relocating people and the challenges involved, creating mutual insurance coverage for climate change risks, options for adaptation for people in vulnerable areas, and dealing with displaced people from climate change.
Acting quickly in terms of climate adaptation actions
During his interview, climate change minister James Shaw said that it is important that governments and communities act quickly in terms of adaptation actions. Is it possible to rebuild better and stronger or relocate quickly or adapt to climate change? How?
This follows the previous question. We do need strong legislative guidance, which is currently in process. Given the size of the country, we will need to mutualise risk so the whole of the country holds the risk, perhaps an extension of the EQC or some other national mutualised insurance arrangement, I’m not sure. And then, finally, we need to be very aware of the changes and continue to adapt accordingly.
People rebuild where they are or perhaps adapt to extreme events.
An interesting example in New Zealand is the Taieri River in the south of Dunedin. It has a lot of big stop banks and a secondary flood area that is farmed. When you get a big flood in the river, they allow it to spill over and flood these farmlands. So, you have a two-tier flood protection. And farmers get plenty of warnings, so when they need to do that, they give them a 24- or 48-hour warning so they can move the stock out of that area. The flooding usually stays just a day or two, and when it drains, they go back to farm the area again a few weeks later.
I think we need to put in similar systems around our bigger rivers. So the trick is not to build homes in those secondary flood plains. In the Taieri floodplains, there are no houses for obvious reasons. Government has to make sure that there are rules and policies that prohibit building in those areas. We are also going to have some coastal retreats at some stage within the next 70 years, and hopefully, we will have the rules and compensation in place by this time.
Going back to the Christchurch red zoning, the people that have their houses red-zoned were paid pre-earthquake evaluations for their homes, so there were fair compensations for the loss of property. Given that there are between 15 and 20 thousand houses, how you fund that would be interesting but not impossible to resolve.
Adaptation options for people
If people choose to stay behind in these vulnerable areas, what climate adaptation options can they take to reduce risk?
Early warning systems, evacuation early, like what they did with the tsunamis where they designated safe zones. Build a second story on your house if the bottom story is likely to get flooded. Moving your marae, community halls, or evacuation centres off flood areas so people can be safe there in case of emergency.
I remember seeing a thing in the US, it’s off the Mississippi River, and there is a massive floodgate on the river.
And once it’s opened, there are towns that were abandoned when the floodgates were built that are still in those flood zones. When they opened the gates, if a big flood came down the Mississippi, those towns would go underwater. Most people who live there are of low socio-economic status, but there are others who also choose to live there for whatever reason they have.
A few years ago, there was a really big flood on the Mississippi, and they opened those floodgates. Those people had to be forcibly removed from houses that were condemned. Everybody knows that houses go underwater when you open the floodgates, so these people don’t want these gates to be opened, but everyone knows that these are abandoned towns, and they should not be there in the first place.
So even in this situation where people know that this town gets inundated the minute those floodgates are open, there are still people living there, and you will always have this issue that people would choose to do their own thing. In this case, it’s good to have early evacuation warnings to protect those people living in these areas.
Building infrastructure resilience for lifeline utilities and critical infrastructure
Suzanne Wilkinson wrote “Flood warning: NZ’s critical infrastructure is too important to fail – greater resilience is urgently needed“ on The Conversation that says New Zealand’s critical infrastructure or “lifeline utilities” such as airports, roads, stormwater and wastewater systems is too important to fail, but it buckled during the Auckland flooding (the airport was flooded, stormwater and wastewater was unable to cope and was overwhelmed spilling effluent into beaches and streams) which shows its lack of resilience to these extreme events. She said infrastructure is also ageing, and some have been built in unsuitable places for today’s population and not for the future.
How can we build resilience into our lifeline utilities and ensure that infrastructure is built for tomorrow’s population?
I have met Suzanne Wilkinson and have very high respect for her. We’ve got bigger events and aging infrastructure, and some are in unsuitable places. We’ve got higher-density populations in some of those places, which are making the problem worse.
The question of building infrastructure for tomorrow’s population is a loaded one. One way we plan to do that in New Zealand is to adopt regional spatial planning regimes. Things are not just looked at in isolation.
We’ve got this Climate Change Adaptation Act coming in, which will require planning for climate change and adaptation. We will move and adapt infrastructure as necessary and, in some cases, armour up or build new stuff that is bigger.
We will build more secondary flow diversions into our stormwater infrastructure – quite difficult in a built-up area like Auckland. We will make sure that we build for the new realities, which may mean housing out of floodplains.
Some years ago in Auckland, when there was still a Waitākere city before the super city amalgamation, they did a big study of their stream. In one particular stream which will flood in certain circumstances, the water will need to get out on those surrounding lands, with about a dozen houses on that floodplain.
At the end of the day, buying those houses and removing them was far more economical than building additional stormwater works. They worked through a consultation process, and that is what they did. They bought those houses that were built way back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and opened the fairways so the rivers could overflow into those areas during the next big flooding event.
What we have seen in Auckland during the January floods, some houses are in areas that will flood, so there is work that needs to be done there.
Challenges of relocating people
Is public compensation possible for these houses in Auckland that were flooded in January and will continue to be inundated in case of future heavy rain and storm events?
I think so because this is certainly what happened in Christchurch. The issue is not about compensation but how you are going to pay for it. At the moment, that compensation is coming out from the likes of EQC, and also, the government tipped in a lot of money to help Christchurch.
If these events become more frequent and bigger, and more areas need more compensation, you will begin to plan how to set aside money for it or plan how to fund it. Is it going to be funded through a special flooding tax, general taxation, or insurance levies?
One of the tiny issues we have with our insurance levies funding because fire services are funded that way, as well as EQC, is there is no requirement for people to hold insurance.
Some people don’t have insurance due to their economic circumstances, or they choose not to hold insurance. If you’ve got a mortgage on your house, you are required by the bank to have insurance in case of fire or flood to make sure your mortgage can be repaid.
But if you don’t have a mortgage, you don’t have to hold insurance. Not having insurance means you’re not contributing to the EQC and fire fund for the general population.
So, there is some issue from a public policy point of view around mandatory insurance or not and just how that is achieved and how that impacts people.
An interesting thing in New Zealand is you have people who bought or built their house way in the 1950s, either in Auckland or Wellington and have lived in it all their lives. Now it is worth a lot of money, but it is still their house, and they don’t want to move.
The only income they may have is their superannuation which is not a lot but enough to live on. You’ve got to remember that you’ve got people, in theory, with a large asset base but a very low cash income. It’s a peculiarity of how we developed as a country. What do you do if you keep loading cost after cost on people?
The same goes for people who are renting, who have disabilities, the unemployed, or whatever it is. There is a limit to what they can pay. And this is always a tension in any country, including New Zealand. There is a question of equity, the cost of providing relocations, and how equity issues will be addressed.
There is a lot to be done in that space over decades in New Zealand because we already have a massive housing inequity in the country. Adding to the relocation problem because of red zoning properties, climate change can worsen housing inequity.
Where to go in case of forced relocations
These people who are renting don’t own a house, and in a difficult socio-economic situation, where would they live then, in case of a forced relocation?
An example is found in south Dunedin, where it has quite a bit of housing that is getting old. The groundwater is only 200 to 400 millimetres below ground, so it’s a flood-prone area, and with the sea level rise, there will be more flooding. At the moment, there are engineered solutions like big pumps that can solve the flooding issue.
But if you have to move bits of south Dunedin to create big flood reserves, where would these people go? Can we build alternative housing quickly enough? The answer at the moment is no.
Then, is the cost of the new alternative housing going to be higher than their present house, and could they afford it? So that’s where you go back to the equity issue.
We’ve got a lot of people in New Zealand who live in motels because they don’t have enough housing, and that’s funded by the government.
And if you throw climate change on top of that and closing and moving of areas, often the people who belong to the low-socioeconomic groups are the most disadvantaged when these things happen – so how would you deal with it as a society is an important question.
There are no easy answers. Yes, we can build safe houses and move them, but there is also a heap of social knock-on effects and community dislocation issues to consider.
Who will bear the cost?
Will the government bear the cost more or less for these people?
You would hope but maybe not.
If you take a small town that has been relocated from the coast and if this town has a predominantly Māori population, then you have strong family and communal bonds in that town. Their ancestors have lived here for a thousand years, and they don’t want to move.
And if you force relocation or a big storm forces a relocation – it’s around those community, family bonds, and sense of place, which is the same with people in the Pacific and Asia.
So, you can move people and say they are safe from floods and tsunamis, but they might be placed in a new community where they don’t feel safe, and they essentially get dislocation stress and psychological issues.
We had this experience in New Zealand in the 1970s. Māori communities were moved from rural into urban areas. And there has been continuing research on the impact arising from sudden and complete dislocation from family and ancestral homeland and what it does to communities. Uprooting a culture, language, and family relationship can result in trauma and stress, and you see that working out in the community.
When we start looking at climate-related relocation, we run the risk of exactly the same set of issues. And they’re not easy issues to solve.
In fact, you solve one issue and create another one. I think we have more information now than in the 1970s, but if the government comes in a very heavy-handed way, which hopefully we won’t because we’ve learned a lot, those are the issues that you can have very quickly.
Community-driven climate relocation
Unless it is a voluntary and community-driven relocation.
Yes, and it involves a lot of communication with community elders leading the discussion and agreement to have that.
Some people in the Pacific Islands have affiliations back to New Zealand. The whole island will be underwater by at least 2100, if not earlier. Those communities will soon relocate somewhere, so we’re talking thousands of people.
And if they relocate to New Zealand, Australia, or Fiji. In Fiji, land has been set aside for this. These people are thinking, how will I maintain my community, culture, language, tradition, ceremonies, and all those anthropological parts of human society when I no longer have the place that they apply to?
In New Zealand, these issues will come up with climate relocation and how we handle that. So now we’re into the political-social discussion as opposed to an infrastructure discussion.
I am not a political scientist or sociologist, but I’m aware of the issues. Sometimes, infrastructure is only one part of that, and the retention of the community value is really important.
Managing people that climate change displayed
Could New Zealand learn from older countries like the United States and the United Kingdom how they handle huge numbers of migrants from other cultures?
Often those moves are, were economically driven.
If you look at large waves of human migration are either economic, climate, or war – these would be the big three causes. All of them have challenges.
For economic reasons– you are moving to a hopefully better and brighter future for you and your family and ultimately your wider family, even if you have to work really hard to get here. So there is more hope associated with this.
With war or climate, you’re leaving everything you love because you have to, so these are two different sets of issues.
From the infrastructure challenge point of view, New Zealand is a very young Western society. The Māori in New Zealand also migrated here.
We are an adaptive and entrepreneurial group of people in all our communities. Immigrants from other countries who also come here are adaptive and innovative. So, it will continue that way.
About the Author
Ross Waugh is the founder and director of Waugh Infrastructure Management. He is an asset management and systems integrations specialist with over three decades of experience.
His company provides infrastructure asset management consulting in transportation, utilities, community facilities, parks, and properties in New Zealand and overseas.
He also co-leads the Climate Adaptation Platform, designed as a portal for recent, relevant information to support governments and councils to help them adapt and be resilient to climate change effects.