Future New Zealand: On the frontline in the Anthropocene

Professor Bruce Glavovic is the EQC Chair in Resilience and Natural Hazards Planning at Massey University.
Professor Bruce Glavovic is the EQC Chair in Resilience and Natural Hazards Planning at Massey University.

Human activities have made such a significant impact on the Earth since the 1800s -and post-World War 2 in particular - that a new geological era has been proposed: The Anthropocene, or the 'age of humans'.

This era of unprecedented global change is posing significant challenges for communities all over the world, including here in New Zealand.

'Business as usual' trajectories of population growth and economic development are not sustainable. Disaster risk is escalating. Nowhere are these challenges more obvious than in cities and towns 'atthe water's edge'- along our rivers and the seashore. These communities are on the frontline in the Anthropocene. Their success or failure in building resilience and sustainability will set a benchmark for humanity.

The experiences of diverse coastal communities in New Zealand show that reducing coastal hazard risk and adapting to a changing climate is far from simple, and it is invariably contentious. Communities prone to riverine flooding face similarly vexing challenges.

The February 2004 floods that ravaged small towns and rural communities in the Manawatū are a good example - the protection works around Palmerston North barely kept flood waters out the region's main city.

Kaeo, in Northland, came to national prominence in 2007 after residents suffered three destructive flood events in quick succession.

Many other New Zealand communities face untenable exposure to natural hazard risks compounded by global change, and climate change in particular.

Concerted efforts are underway by government and local authorities, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, research organisations and bodies like the Royal Society of New Zealand, and a wide variety of community and private sector organisations, to better understand this predicament and implement constructive solutions.

So far success has been elusive.

But some New Zealand communities are exploring innovative ways to navigate the challenges of the Anthropocene. Below are two examples that point to a way forward for at-risk communities all over the country.

Hawke's Bay's Coastal Hazard Strategy

When the government launched the National Science Challenges to address the 'big science challenges' facing New Zealand in the 21st century, adapting to ever-changing natural hazards was one of the priorities. The challenge is called Resilience to Nature's Challenges; it includes a focus on coastal hazard risk and climate change adaptation research.

Researchers have partnered with those responsible for developing the Hawke's Bay Coastal Hazard Strategy 2120 - and several distinguishing features of this partnership deserve highlighting. First, the 100-year time frame compels consideration of the distant future - a vital perspective for any genuine effort to navigate inter-generational concerns in the Anthropocene.

'Business as usual' trajectories of population growth and economic development are not sustainable.

Second, the strategy is a truly collaborative effort. It has been developed by the Hastings District Council, Hawke's Bay Regional Council, Napier City Council, groups representing mana whenua and tangata whenua and actively involves private sector and community stakeholders in the region. Such active collaboration is essential to resolve complex public problems.

Third, involving independent researchers with relevant expertise has helped to co-create a robust foundation of knowledge that underpins the strategy's development.

Traditionally, experts are often pitted against one another in an unproductive and adversarial way that hinders, rather than helps, the building of a shared understanding of the situation. This then delays the implementation of solutions.

Whangaehu Valley Flood Resilience Uplift Project

Homesteads, farmers and small communities in the Whangaehu Valley in the Rangitikei District of the Manawatū have been flooded four times since 2004. With modest funding from the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Resilience Fund, a collaborative initiative has been set up to enable flood-ravaged communities to work more closely with government.

The aim is to develop a shared understanding of the scope of the flood risk in the Whangaehu Valley and develop a risk-reduction and resilience-building action plan. A key feature of the initiative is its focus on implementing the plan in a way that can adapt to inevitable future changes.

I have the privilege of working as the independent facilitator of this process under the guidance of an advisory group that, again, is truly collaborative in its approach.

It includes representatives from Ngāti Apa (Whangaehu and Nga Wairiki Ki Uta), Federated Farmers, flood affected people, and the Rangitikei District Council, Wanganui District Council, Horizons Regional Council, Ministry of Social Development, Te Puni Kōkiri and the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

An underlying goal is to create a 'safe arena' for difficult conversations, because climate change means making hard decisions about which assets and ecosystems can be protected against a backdrop of divergent interests.

The Whangaehu Valley community is building a process for co-designing a risk-reduction and resilience-building plan that takes into account the values, concerns, issues and realities of all parties.

This is the way forward for any community 'on the frontline' in the Anthropocene.

Local authorities must work collaboratively with tangata whenua and mana whenua, community stakeholders, the private sector and government, if solutions to the 'wicked problems' thrown up by climate change in the 'age of humans' are to be found.

- NZ Herald

Professor Bruce Glavovic is the EQC Chair in Resilience and Natural Hazards Planning at Massey University.

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