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.