Coastal challenges

I noticed a small article in one of the local newspapers last week, promoting an event to celebrate the Cape Coast in Hawke’s Bay (including the coastal communities of Haumoana and Te Awanga). The event is a fund-raising auction, which is being held this week, with a range of quality items. The funds are to support the Walking on Water (WOW) campaign for a hard engineering solution for coastal erosion protection.

Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga
Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga

The reality of the 21st century is that we’re going to increasingly see coastal communities like this campaigning for their survival. To put things in perspective, current projections of sea-level rise indicate that hundreds of millions of people will be at risk over coming decades. More than two thirds of the world’s cities are at risk. Asia is particularly vulnerable, as shown on this map. Bangkok, which I am travelling to next week, is one of the most vulnerable cities.

Coming back to a New Zealand perspective, the Royal Society of New Zealand recently released an update of current knowledge regarding future sea-level rise. Emerging evidence suggests that sea-level rise greater than current guidance could occur. The current Ministry for the Environment guidance recommends a base value of 0.5m for sea-level rise, with assessment of consequences up to 0.8m. The more recent evidence suggests that it would not be unrealistic to consider a higher level rise by the end of this century. In some countries, such as Australia and the Netherlands, higher levels (in both of these cases 1.1m) have been set for risk assessment and planning purposes

Given this bigger picture, and the already vulnerable situation at Haumoana and Te Awanga, I personally don’t believe that investment in coastal barriers is a viable long-term solution for these communities. Erosion is already happening and with allowance for sea-level rise there will be accelerated erosion. Unfortunately the most obvious alternative solution to coastal barriers, managed retreat, isn’t an easy one for people to accept. Some perspective is needed in this regard. Like everywhere else in New Zealand we are fortunate to have options that the majority of people in the world don’t have. With the right spirit and focus this local coastal community has an opportunity to provide some genuine leadership. In my view this leadership isn’t going to come about from resisting change and wanting to construct barriers. Rather it will come from positive engagement in finding realistic, long-lasting solutions. For this to happen we need to recognise the psychological dimension of change. That’s a very big challenge that we as a society need to start working on together. We’re a long way from where we need to be in this regard. To get there we’re going to need the artists and all the others who have generously donated to the upcoming fundraising activity. That’s the crux of my concern in reading about this event, that we’re putting so much time and energy into resisting change in a world that is undergoing very rapid change.

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