Should we be having a much bigger, bolder debate about where people can live, work and play in a country vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes and rising sea levels? Four experts shared their views on the value and costs of resilient infrastructure at the IPWEA NZ conference earlier this year. Ruth Le Pla was there.
In June last year unpredicted rainfall and unprecedented high river levels devastated Whanganui. They caused the largest flood ever recorded in the town’s urban riverbank area and suburban hills. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes. Houses and businesses were inundated. Landslides took out dwellings and there were over 4000 slips on rural roads. The Whanganui River flowed over existing stopbanks at 11.30pm on June 20 and the next morning council deliberately breached a stopbank to release the trapped water.
The river, which normally flows at just over one metre, peaked at almost 22 metres. And 4755 cubic metres were recorded 50 kilometres upstream – the highest ever recorded.
Mayor Annette Main says there’s now an urgent need for some hard decisions. These include the need to raise the level of the town’s urban stopbanks and replace stormwater pipes overwhelmed by the well-over one-in-100 year rainfall.
Yet, as she points out, it simply isn’t realistic for a community of 45,000 to replace the whole network at a cost of millions or to immediately rebuild higher stopbanks. “We already have debt from our previous work to protect our industrial area.”
Then there’s the not inconsiderable matter of who will ultimately fund a $40 million new wastewater plant needed to meet the area’s needs into the future. The plant is a vital building block for Whanganui’s future industrial and population growth.
“The discussion with our community is yet to be had about where those costs will fall once it’s built.”
Previous opposition to costs associated with protecting the town currently mean that while the industrial area is protected to a one-in-200 year level, the urban area is only protected to a 30-year level.
Annette says it’s time for hard talk on “compelling” protection for communities to a level that protects against medium-sized events.
It’s a conversation that needs to be had with central government, she says. “Because when people are able to be consulted about the cost of things – and they’re not used to seeing flood levels such as we had recently – it’s really easy for them to say no and override the opinions of a council.”
In the post-flood clean-up, most homes in the flooded areas have been repaired and people have either returned home or moved on.
“But others have bought damaged houses and rebuilt them, knowing the risks,” says Annette. “On the hills in our town, some may never return and face ongoing legal argument with EQC because in a place like Whanganui the relatively low value of the land means there’s no way people can repair the damage with what they’re offered.
“So in our community we feel for them but as a council there’s nothing we can do apart from help them gain some advice and work through the process.”
Nor are private market signals helping resolve the long-term issue of where it’s wise, or best, for people to live, work or play.
Annette says she had wanted to encourage people away from flood-prone areas “but they were able to get insurance and so stayed”.
Join the dots
Another IPWEA NZ conference speaker, barrister and solicitor Susan Thodey says that, on a nationwide scale, it’s time to join the dots between all interested parties and the issues. “There’s got to be a national policy developed that can lead to greater resilience in community structure.”
For many years managing partner of Heaney & Partners, Susan now consults to the firm. She outlines two possible payment models for funding resilient infrastructure and their potential implications (see box story “Two scenarios”).
For Local Government Funding Agency (LGFA) chair Craig Stobo, the list of interested parties includes not just homeowners, businesses, insurers, and local and central government. He’d like to see a direct “technological thread from the natural hazard science community, through local and / or district councils to households”.
Perhaps delivered via an app on mobile phones, scientific information could help drive behavioural change by householders facing natural hazard risk.
“Householders could see the potential risks from the sites of their households,” says Craig. “Or local authorities could see the potential risks from hazards for their infrastructure and could react accordingly.”
At the moment many people are just “baffled”, he says. “It’s very hard for householders to react… We’re not using our science community effectively.”
Much data is currently held across a mix of public and private sector organisations – many engineering firms have hazard mapping abilities, for example.
Craig is hopeful the private sector would eventually manage the flow of information via such an app, which would not be hard to acquire or build.
Meanwhile, he calls for leadership from central and / or local government to set up ways to start funnelling public science information to communities.
The insurance sector already has such mechanisms in place, notes Craig. “And the banking industry is starting to adjust mortgage interest payments with a premium for areas where they perceive there is agreement around natural hazard risk.
“So the community is reacting but it’s very slow. Technology solutions will allow us to do that much faster and more directly in the future.”
He adds the Commission for the Environment has already published maps of risk-prone areas. “The sooner they are picked up and used by insurers the better.”
In the same tent
Similarly, Auckland Council chief of strategy Jim Quinn calls for a “deep and collaborative” approach to funding resilient infrastructure.
“In the event of a natural disaster everybody tends to club around, he says. “If everybody’s in the tent on the way through when the decisions are made, the likelihood that everybody stumps up in a fair and equal way when an event occurs is more probable.”
Practical steps include forming a single dataset, and agreeing on assumptions and risks.
“If we don’t act in a collaborative way it’s easy for everybody who has a choice to walk away. Then it’s left to those who have nowhere to go to deal with the whole problem – and intuitively that’s council and central government.
Meanwhile, many people expect the rate and severity of natural hazards to continue to worsen. If there are no mechanisms for directly linking the impact of area-wide disasters to specific decisions that community members make, local authorities will increasingly suffer from a Cassandra complex. They will have the blessing of being able to accurately predict upcoming crises and the curse of not being taken seriously by their communities. And the question will remain: who pays?
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.