From our Chair: Floods, climate change and planning ahead

Just a few weeks ago, Canterbury/Waitaha was in the thick of an extended dry spell with many farmers desperate for rain. Now, many are facing a long, difficult clean up from the recent downpour and flooding.

It’s been a tough time for our rural communities. My condolences to all those whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by the extreme weather of recent times. For many, even after the clean-up from the flooding, the financial and psychological effects will remain for some time.

The scale and effect

The scale of the recent weather event was something we have never seen before. By way of example, the Mount Somers rain gauge recorded more than double the previously recorded maximum for a 72-hour period. In this case, 546mm.

However, while it will be cold comfort for those who were seriously impacted, the flood-protection network across Canterbury held up remarkably well under such an extreme test.

Flooding in New Zealand

Flooding is the most common natural hazard we face in this country. Every corner of New Zealand is susceptible, whether caused by a cloudburst, a long and steady rainstorm, rapid runoff due to soil erosion, or rivers clogged with debris.

Because flooding is such a common threat, it means that, even as many start the road back to recovery, we need to be thinking and planning for the next inevitable weather challenge.

The impact of climate change

We know that climate change increases the likelihood of more extreme weather events. As the scientists tell us, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which can result in more extreme rainfall.

We also know that climate change is already impacting our local ecosystems, and the projections are for worse storms, floods and droughts, which will occur more often.

Our recently launched climate change campaign It’s time, Canterbury: Our Climate Change Conversation outlines in some detail just how the region may be impacted.

Climate change and the recent flooding

It is difficult to say to what degree climate change contributed to the latest extreme weather system. Canterbury has always been susceptible to easterly rainstorms – although relatively infrequent, they are by no means unprecedented.

Yet the signature of climate change is likely to be in there somewhere. It may be in the increased intensity of the rainfall or the duration of the heaviest falls.

Time will tell, but based on what the science says, it would be prudent to consider more of these storms a real possibility and plan accordingly.

Planning ahead

Last week, Environment Canterbury adopted the Long-Term Plan 2021-31. Climate change and community resilience is factored into the plan’s work programmes, and this is no less the case when it comes to designing, building and maintaining high-quality infrastructure for flood protection, land drainage and erosion control.

Flood protection - who should pay?

The many hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of flood protection schemes in this country have all been paid for by regional ratepayers. This work protects lives, communities and billions of dollars of regional assets from the full force of raging rivers. Many of those assets are also nationally important.

A 2018 study calculated that replacing all of New Zealand’s river-management and flood-protection schemes would cost around $2.3 billion.

As flooding is a national issue, and expected to become worse with a warmer climate, there is the question of whether it is still fair to place that burden entirely on local communities.

The Canterbury community is very grateful for the recent $4 million from central government for the recovery work, but there is value in discussing co-investment between local and central government for flood-prevention measures, rather than paying to manage a disaster during and after the event.

Support for farmers

For those affected by the recent flooding, support is available. The Civil Defence Emergency Management Canterbury website includes advice on how to make your home habitable again, how to remove flood debris, make an insurance claim, and find psychological support, financial help or emergency accommodation. 

Further information

For the latest updates and FAQs on the recovery work, head to the Canterbury Flood Recovery page.