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.

+64 21 149 3659inquiries@earthlimited.org

Long time no see and the proposed dam in Hawke’s Bay

It’s been nearly two years since I posted here. Two years ago I had a period without paid work and focused my time on putting together some film clips and posting them on my YouTube channel.

Soon after I started a UNDP contract in Mauritius, focused on ‘Capacity Building for Development of Climate Resilient Policies’. It was an exhausting but ultimately rewarding piece of work.

2012 proved to be my busiest year ever. I had a New Zealand contract working with kiwifruit growers and others on resilience to climate change. This was very difficult work given the unfolding effects of PSA on the kiwifruit industry and I think a general (and worrying) lack of interest in climate change. As the year progressed I had to juggle this work with two separate contracts in Samoa and another UNDP contract. For the latter I worked as part of a team completing a mid-term evaluation of the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) project.

Currently I’m working on another New Zealand project under the Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change programme; working with two colleagues from Landcare Research.

Meanwhile I’ve recently been interviewed by TV3 for an item on the planned Ruataniwha dam in Central Hawke’s Bay. Unfortunately, as happens with news items, they chose the sound bite that they wanted to use to fit the story they told. There was no room for some of my key messages which included:

1) The majority (more than 80 percent) of Hawke’s Bay is in hill country. So a dam that is designed to irrigate 25,000 ha of flat land for intensive dairy farming is not going to do anything to build security against current and future droughts in the region. In fact it could make future drought security worse. This needs more discussion than I’m giving right now.
2) The proposed dam is a solution without a clearly defined problem. There is no long-term strategy for the whole Hawke’s Bay region, taking account of climate change, which clearly identifies the key issues and critically looks at the different choices we have to address them. Again this needs more discussion.
3) There has been a complete lack of genuine community consultation throughout the whole process.

Back to Thailand

Earlier this year I had a phone call out of the blue from a friend in Thailand, Khun Wipa. I hadn’t spoken to her since 2007 when we were travelling and filming grassroots perspectives on climate change. She was phoning me on behalf of Ajarn Yak who wanted me to come back to Thailand to contribute to a grassroots gathering of the Agri-Nature Foundation. I was subsequently in Thailand for just over a week, from 16 to 24 March. I haven’t yet written about this trip, but it’s on my list of things to do!

The point of this is that I am heading back to Thailand next week. My initial motivation for returning was to attend the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum. I will be showcasing some of the work that I’ve done over the last decade as well as helping profile the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation. I’ve already given them some assistance in the translation of some of their information. Here are the two posters that I will be putting on display:

Poster 1: Lessons from farmers in eastern New Zealand (2.33 MB)

Poster 2: Lessons from people in different countries (2.04 MB)

I’ve also been invited to act as provocateur for a session on climate uncertainty. In preparing for this last week I recalled that uncertainty was the topic of my first ever talk on climate change in 1991. I’ve certainly learnt a few things since then.

Following the adaptation forum I will again be hosted by my friends at the Agri-Nature Foundation. We’ll most likely be going to the Agri-Nature centre at Maab Uaeng in Chonburi province.

Successful completion of Sustainable Farming Fund project

Yesterday saw a successful conclusion to a two-year Sustainable Farming Fund project that I have been managing.  We completed the last of three field days that we have been running.  The turnout at the first wasn’t so good, but at the second we had about 70 people and yesterday we had 60+ people. The field day yesterday was hosted by Greg and Rachel Hart at Mangarara Station. We had a strong focus on soil health with Graham Shepherd talking on “Building soil health to better cope with climatic extremes” and providing a practical demonstration of his Visual Soil Assessment approach.

Graham Shepherd demonstrating application of the Visual Soil Assessment guide
Graham Shepherd demonstrating application of the Visual Soil Assessment guide

I’ll be posting a bit more information about the project soon, including pdf copies of the fact sheets that have been produced from the project.

Taharoa Trust field day a success

We held a very successful field day at Taharoa Trust farm on Mahia Peninsula yesterday, hosted by owners Pat and Sue O’Brien. There were about 70 farmers and rural industry people who came from as far afield as Porongahau in southern Central Hawke’s Bay and north of Gisborne. The field day was one of three being held in Hawke’s Bay as the culmination of a two-year Sustainable Farming Fund project. The focus of the project has been the long-term resilience of hill country farming in the face of a changing climate.

The day began with a welcoming Karakia from Sue O’Brien ahead of an opening one-hour session. Project Manager, Gavin Kenny, then provided an overview of the project and key outcomes. The project began with in-depth interviews held with 21 farmers spread throughout Hawke’s Bay. The focus of these interviews was to determine what farmers had learnt from past and recent droughts, as well as flood events, and what they were putting in place to deal with future climate extremes. Information shared by the farmers has been collated as part of a series of four fact sheets. Three farmers were identified for more in-depth studies. These involved development and publication of a farm environment plan and preparation of a summary case study. Three field days are being held to share the fact sheet and case study information. The first field day was held at Tim Dinneen’s family farm, Williams Hill Station, near Puketitiri on 11 March. The Taharoa Trust field day was the second. The third and final field day will be held at Mangarara Station in Central Hawke’s Bay on 10 June.

The main focus of the field days is building resilience for the future and Gavin Kenny provided a brief summary of what this actually means. The main components are: buffering capacity (eg, ability to withstand a drought or flood); self regulation (eg, ability to manage a drought without dependence on imported feed); adaptability (ie, capacity to adapt and change over time). His talk concluded with a couple of quotes from farmers who said they wanted to see working models of resilience. Taharoa Trust farm provides one such working model.

A captive audience listening to Garth Eyle's talk on the underlying geology and different land classes on the farm
A captive audience listening to Garth Eyle's talk on the underlying geology and different land classes on the farm

Garth Eyles then talked about the farm environment plan. He provided a brief summary of the geology of the Mahia Peninsula then talked about some of the key land characteristics of Taharoa Trust. On the terraces the soils are formed from volcanic ashes and loess. On the steep slopes the ash has disappeared and the soils are formed on the mudstone. Garth talked about the different land management options needed to protect the land, some of which are already being put in place. An important characteristic of the property is the 27 hectares of wetland that have been progressively fenced off over the last five years.

Mike Halliday gave a brief talk on farm shelter. Pat O’Brien has been busy removing old macrocarpa trees over the last decade and with his farm redesign programme well underway is now looking at shelter plantings for the future. One of the fundamental principals of good shelter design is to plant a semi-permeable shelter. Another important consideration is orientation for the sun, with evergreen trees planted north-south and deciduous trees planted east-west.

Pat O’Brien concluded the session with an overview of what had been achieved in the ten years since they took over the farm from Sue’s parents. Significant development work has been done, with an on-going focus towards matching land use to land class. This has involved retiring the wetland areas and an area of bush, and intensifying farming on the better land. Key developments have included: water reticulation; a greater trading component with the stock; pasture improvement and cropping; and a shift to a low input soil management programme with the Hatuma Lime Company. Pat and Sue both have a strong sense of guardianship with the farm and this was clearly reflected in the current and future planning.

Lunch was then provided before everyone headed out onto the farm, where three sites were visited.

Pat O'Brien talking about the benefits they've gained from fencing off and retiring wetland areas on the farm
Pat O'Brien talking about the benefits they've gained from fencing off and retiring wetland areas on the farm

The first site was next to the bush block, overlooking one of the main wetland areas that has been retired and fenced off. John Cheyne, a wetland expert with Fish & Game, talked about the significant value of wetland areas and the multiple functions and benefits that they provide. This includes the increased biodiversity, a filter zone, and buffering against flood events. Peter Manson, from the HBRC Wairoa office, talked about the support HBRC provides farmers who wish to protect wetland areas. Their programme provides a grant to cover half the cost of fencing materials. The O’Briens have made a significant investment in protecting the wetland areas. They’re already realising the benefits. The obvious economic benefit is the ability to focus more time and effort to intensification of the better land. When asked whether the same number of stock could be grazed with less area, Pat didn’t believe that fencing wetland areas out had affected his overall carrying capacity at all as it had been combined with an intensified grazing regime. Experiencing the increase of native plants and bird life is another very important benefit to Pat and Sue.

Pat intends to fence off the stream running through this valley
Pat intends to fence off the stream running through this valley

The second site was looking out over a valley system that was likely formed in the past when the sea level was higher. There is a relatively small stream running through this valley, which Pat is aiming to fence off in future. At this site Bill Nicholson, from Hatuma Lime Company, shared information on the benefits of a low input farming approach. When asked about the one ton of lime to one acre “rule of thumb”, Bill responded that experience shows little and often gives much better results over time. An important feature of a low input approach is the encouragement of biological life in the soil. He shared information from a farm near Wairoa that has been following a low input regime for 30 years. Questioned about whether his switch to a low input regime was because of cost, Pat responded it was more due to other factors. For them such an approach is more consistent with the sustainable farming model that they are developing.

Warwick Green talking about pasture species for long-term resilience
Warwick Green talking about pasture species for long-term resilience

At the third and final site Warwick Green from Seedforce talked about pasture species for future resilience. Warwick is working with the O’Brien’s to improve their pasture. As a farmer with more than 30 years experience with pasture breeding, Warwick has a wealth of knowledge to share. He talked about the need to be much more focused on matching pasture species and variety to the desired use and land class. He commented that resilience in pastures is about having a farm plan and a range of pasture species all chosen for the specific purpose intended in different parts of the farm. Advance planning is essential. He suggested that with a greater frequency of warmer, drier, conditions in future we made need to look outside the square to what the Australians and others have been doing. In summary, he said there are plenty of options out there, but perhaps not enough pasture specialists anymore. Mike Halliday then gave a quick description on how a shelter system could be applied to the block of land being viewed using existing fencelines and contours.

The day was concluded with a thank you to Pat and Sue, who were presented with a copy of the Hawke’s Bay ‘Guide to Successful Farm Forestry’. Feedback on the day was very positive with the right mix of good information and seeing what was being done on the farm.