Slow motion catastrophe: Another massive Hawke's Bay drought is looming.

Fifteen years ago climate scientists predicted that severe droughts would strike every five years rather than every 20 years. The boffins were close to the mark. The 2006/7 drought cost the East Coast $700 million in lost production and set the region back for years. That's what droughts do. This one won't be much different. That's why we started to look at water storage and irrigation.

But since New Zealand is now 95 per cent urban and 30 per cent of us live in Auckland, there is little or no understanding of rural issues amongst the population at large. Last week on talkback radio, an Auckland DJ was lamenting the fact that he lost cellphone coverage when he went under motorway bridges and that Auckland didn't have 4G.

"We live," he said "in a Third World country." He certainly lives in a different country from much of rural New Zealand where there is no cellphone coverage at all.


Urban lobby and pressure groups dominate politics and the media. And propaganda frequently trumps truth. A good example is the effort and the media attention paid to re-floating suicidal whales, while our 1000 remaining Bitterns, some of which live precariously in Lake Whatuma in Central Hawke's Bay, face extinction.

Forest and Bird should be moving heaven and earth to save them, but they are obsessed with fighting the Ruataniwha dam. That project includes $11m, paid entirely by the water users, to plant native forests, fence waterways and restore wetlands, which is where (you guessed it) Bitterns like to hang out and bring up their children.

These days, the moment you mention water, logic flies out the window and all the mad people trip over one another as they stampede into print and on to social media to bombard the poor unsuspecting public with their lunatic fringe theories. The preferred target is dairying but anyone in a paddock is fair game.

Urban misdemeanours are treated leniently. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright's last report highlighted several areas of concern. One was dairying. Another was urban water quality. Guess which one was ignored and which one got massive media coverage.

Greenpeace are the resident experts. They claim dams destroy rivers, because industrial dairying and massive pollution is the inevitable result of building a dam on a river.

This is a lie of epic proportions constantly repeated and now widely accepted as fact. The view that some dams might drought proof rural economies, employ thousands of people and improve the environment is heresy. Dairying today is a totally different animal than it was even 20 years ago, but positive progress doesn't fit in with the critics.

Reason suggests that If cows are evil, ban cows. Let everyone else use stored water for grapes, kiwifruit, water melons, cereals, apples and any other crops the eco-police approve of.

Horticulture is increasing exponentially in value and productivity but markets require consistency and that means water at all times.

This green Gestapo has morphed into extremist bullies whose words and actions frequently contradict their stated aspirations.

Their position is echoed by HB regional councillor Tom Belford who has been swapping emails with Greenpeace but refuses to make his communications public despite being legally and morally obliged to do so.

Tom says that "a more dependable water supply would unlock more production in the farming and growing agribusiness sector".

But he is adamant that there must be no dam in CHB. Using the logic he applies to this position, he cannot approve of a dam anywhere else either. So who is going to invest in or maintain an industry that gets barrel bombed by nature every five years?

His fellow HB regional councillor Paul Bailey says that during the coming crisis farmers need to "increase resilience in their land use ... through wetland capacity and humus in soils so there is retention of moisture".

I can see that a wetland could be useful in the coming months. My sheep could learn to water ski on it to take their minds off their empty tummies. I am not sure how increasing humus will help. Humus, no matter how healthy, still requires moisture to produce vegetation.

A rain dancer or some form of water storage and irrigation would be a more helpful addition to Paul's musings on the solution to the big dry.

Forest and Bird HB manager Amelia Geary, writing in the same article, says people "may need more irrigation". But she says, "no matter how many dams, the environment can't sustain what it used to". Quite how you get more irrigation in a drought if you haven't saved up water somewhere is an interesting proposition.

All the evidence indicates that with sensible water storage and sensible policies, the environment can sustain a lot more than it did in the days when we cut down forests and emptied sewage ponds directly into rivers and the ocean.

The uncharitable observer might regard the DJ who thinks mankind's highest achievement would be 4G coverage under a motorway bridge as an idiot.

Looking closer to home he might also apply similar negative feelings to many of the participants in the debate on water, climate change and drought.

We should feel sorry for them all, but not as sorry as we will be when we say bye bye birdie to the Bitterns.

Tim Gilbertson is a farmer, former mayor of Central Hawke's Bay and former Hawke's Bay regional councillor. His column will appear every fortnight on a Saturday. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.