Expensive, large scale, projects aren’t the way forward

Here’s an opinion piece on the proposed Ruataniwha Dam which was published in Hawke’s Bay Today yesterday.

I continue to be appalled at what is verging on a propaganda campaign by Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, at our (ratepayers) expense, in relation to the proposed Ruataniwha Dam. The latest is a special edition of Our Place, circulated to ratepayers this week. Yet again, as I’ve read and heard continually, the recent drought and the prospect of more of the same with climate change is being used as a justification for the dam.

Let’s be clear the primary intention of the dam is to support agricultural intensification not to provide security against climate change and future drought risk. The latter is debatable and should not be used as a justification for the scheme in the absence of a comprehensive assessment.

I’m speaking from experience. I have worked professionally on climate change for more than 20 years, in New Zealand and internationally. Throughout this time my work has focused on impact and adaptation assessment with a strong emphasis on resilience building over the last decade.

There has yet to be a comprehensive assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation options for Hawke’s Bay. The Regional Council is right to identify future drought risk as one possible threat. However there will be multiple threats to the region which will require multiple responses.

Other possible threats include the potential for more intense rainfall events, sea level rise impacts, increased plant and animal pests and diseases, impacts on native flora and fauna, and impacts on human health. How well will the region be placed to deal with these multiple threats with such a huge investment of funds in one large water storage dam?

This doesn’t sound like a very smart risk spreading exercise to me. Sea level rise alone has the potential to have huge impacts, and associated costs, on Napier and communities such as Te Awanga where there is already active coastal erosion.

Hill country farmers have literally been left high and dry with the Council’s singular focus on the dam. Let’s remember that the vast majority of the 1.42 million hectares that make up Hawke’s Bay is hill country.

In the current HBRC 10-year plan the proposed solution for the hill country was an afforestation scheme which naively pinned its hopes on an international carbon trading market that has now collapsed. So we’re looking at the majority of the region still being exposed to both drought and extreme rainfall events.

With the “all eggs in one basket” approach with the dam there is no back up solution for the hill country at present. Instead ratepayer resources are being channeled into a scheme to irrigate 24,000 hectares of arable (flat) land (less than 2 percent of the region’s land area), some of which is already irrigated from groundwater.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the dam issue is that there are other options for addressing drought and other climate risks and there are farmers who are being proactive in exploring them.

Landscape diversity, soil management practices that provide increased buffering against drought and flood, as well as matching land use to land class and local microclimate, are the keys. These need to be linked to a focus on becoming price makers of high quality products with locally owned value chains from farm to plate. I’ve spoken to enough farmers who see the potential of this. We need to be working with and supporting them much more than we are.

To put things in perspective even with a ten percent reduction in average rainfall, and more summer droughts as we’ve just had, we’d still be receiving significantly more rainfall than Tuscany in Italy.

It’s time to take a big pause from what has become a very undemocratic and dishonest process. We need some genuine, fully participatory, future visioning and planning for the whole region which is founded on a comprehensive understanding of all possible future climate and other risks.

Dealing with future drought

Here’s an opinion piece that I wrote for stuff.co.nz last week; my thoughts on how climate change and the prospect of more droughts in New Zealand’s future might reshape farming in this country, and how those changes might flow through to wider society.

For more than twenty years I have worked professionally on the ‘what ifs’ of climate change, focused mostly on what it might mean for agriculture. I’ve done this work in New Zealand, Europe, the PacificIslands and Asia. During that time I have experienced the progression from the hypothetical to real world responses. Climate change, particularly as experienced through more frequent drought and flood events, is increasingly influencing what farmers are doing in many countries. It is not clear whether this is yet the case in New Zealand although I suspect so.

With a record summer drought just behind us, and with negative and positive effects that will continue to unfold for farmers, it is relevant to ask ‘what if we get more frequent and intense droughts in the future? How might farming change and how might those changes affect wider society?’ To help guide our thinking and acting for the future it is instructive to firstly look to the past, not just in New Zealand but to other societies and civilisations that have entered periods of more frequent and intense droughts.

In the ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’, Brian Fagan explores the impact of climate shifts, including drought, on civilizations over the last 15,000 years. In his Preface he comments that “In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes”. The story of the city of Tiwanaku is a good example. Over a period of 500 years Tiwanaku thrived near the shores of Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia. The city was supported by agricultural intensification that was strongly reliant on water. The onset of a climatic shift around A.D. 1100 changed everything. Annual rainfall declined by 10 to 15 percent over a prolonged period and Tiwanaku crossed a critical threshold of vulnerability. “The ability of the Tiwanaku state to adjust to the great drought was limited culturally by centuries of rapid population growth underwritten by the remarkable productivity of the raised fields. Tiwanaku’s economy was entirely dependent on this single agricultural technology, which in turn depended on abundant water. When the water failed, the entire system collapsed.”

Focusing back on present day New Zealand we have seen a strong move towards intensification of farming over the last twenty years. This was well documented under the former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in the ‘Growing for Good’ report. Two obvious examples of this intensification are the increased focus on irrigation and the huge increase in use of urea fertiliser. The lesson from Tiwanaku is that it would be unwise to simply put our faith, and a huge amount of debt for infrastructure development, in more large irrigation schemes.

This is not a matter of cockies versus townies. Agricultural intensification in New Zealand has been fuelled by our collective demand for consumer goods. We can’t criticise the negative things we see with farming without looking at our own behaviour. And that gets to the crux of what climate change requires of us all; behaviour change. Simply put we’re increasingly living beyond our means and the capacity of our land and water resources to sustain our wants.

What’s the alternative then? Since 2001 I have worked on documenting positive things farmers are doing that are relevant in terms of building resilience to climate change. This includes increasing numbers, still a minority, who are shifting to biological soil management; changes in pasture species and management with a focus on longer covers (not grazing the grass so hard) and greater rooting depth; changes in stock policies aimed at greater flexibility; a focus on greater soil moisture retention; fencing of riparian areas; on-farm water storage; planting trees for multiple benefits; fencing remnant native bush and putting them into QEII Trust covenants.

We already have the ingredients for smart, resilient, farming systems. The future vision I have for farming in New Zealand is consistent with Colin Tudge’s Campaign for Real Farming. In a New Zealand context this would involve developing a ‘Food First’ policy to ensure that the basic food needs of all within New Zealand are met for now and for a future with climate change. We then export the surplus. This would be founded on low carbon farming systems that are a functional part of, and working within the natural constraints of, local environments. There is a lot of unrealised ecological potential in this regard, which is strongly linked to unrealised economic potential.

To develop such a future we’ll all need to look at changing our behaviour. In Colin Tudge’s words “We are talking about the difference between a world that could endure effectively for ever, in peace and conviviality, and one that could be in dire straits within a few decades.”