Local government agencies in Northland have realised that strong leadership will be needed to create climate change resilience in the region.
To provide a unified strategy, representatives of Northland's four councils with tangata whenua got together as the Joint Climate Change Adaptation Committee and in August published a draft that might see their efforts aligned in future.
The Northland councils – Whangārei, Kaipara and Far North district councils, and Northland Regional Council – see their role in managing risks of natural hazards and providing infrastructure for the region.
Their draft sets out a plan to co-design solutions, manage climate risks, support emergency responses and enhance the resilience of natural systems.
It also provides a voice for hapū and iwi who are concerned the effects of climate change will exacerbate inequalities already faced by Māori including social development needs, housing and poverty.
Committee chairwoman Amy Macdonald, who is also the Northland Regional Council Climate Change Working Party chairwoman, says the draft is now under review by the councils to be then included in their long-term plans.
While adaption is only one element when combating climate change – along with reducing emissions and removing carbon – it's to ensure "all the services and infrastructure that we provide are going to be able to sustained", Macdonald explained.
"It's making sure there is consistency in how it's done, that it's properly budgeted and planned so that the decisions that we make now still make sense in 30 years, 50 years and 100 years."
For Macdonald, the adaptation plan is not "pushing the boat out" but something that had to be done to ensure basic services can continue.
"It's about protecting life as we know it. It will include some change, no doubt. But that hasn't been decided yet. The plan just sets out the process by which we will decide."
One of the major concerns for all four councils is water supply. Northland in recent years has experienced how vulnerable its water infrastructure is under drought conditions.
Fifty per cent of Northlanders are not connected to municipal water supply – in Kaipara the number is closer to 70 per cent, in the Far North 65 per cent.
Groundwater extraction is already in high use with little ability to increase for the primary sector and industry.
"Drought is significant because our economy is based on primary production."
The way farmers and growers use their land might have to change, depending on what solutions can be found.
"It's not straightforward. It's a challenge for our primary sector."
Drinking-water availability is also problematic. It was "freaky" when the region almost ran out two years ago, Macdonald said.
"Water poverty is a real issue in Northland."
Civil Defence is providing backup water during severe drought conditions, but building water resilience is largely uncoordinated.
NRC is bringing work under way to support people with their tank water supply – especially the most remote communities that are vulnerable to the differences in rainfall year by year.
That will include getting more water tanks, gutters and pipes into the communities and securing subsidies from the Government.
Macdonald said it was important to factor in poverty when councils plan infrastructure changes.
"If we want people to do things differently, in some cases we need to find ways to support that."
Besides drought, Northland will also have to brace for extreme rainfall that will result in more floods as last seen in July this year.
About 70 towns and localities are likely to be significantly affected by flooding and rising levels.
NRC has undertaken extensive mapping of the coastal flood zones and councils are now wanting to improve their long-term coastal management.
It will be important to protect floodplains from inappropriate urban development and keep upgrading stormwater systems.
The regional council is now trialling a new storm tracking system that provides much better monitoring of heavy-rainfall events than their weather stations and could give communities more time to prepare.
Extreme weather events relate to an increase in natural hazards such as landslips - particularly around Mangamuka Gorge and Kawakawa - and wildfires.
Northland makes up about 10 per cent of the total length of roads across New Zealand projected to be exposed to coastal flooding, which could result in cutting off already-remote communities from the rest of the region.
Councils are looking at upgrading or relocating particularly badly affected roads.
In terms of civil defence, Northland has an established network of agencies prepared to support people in case of emergencies – and they have climate change on their radar.
In its emergency management plan, Northland Civil Defence writes:
"Community exposure to infrastructure failure will increase even more significantly as society becomes increasingly dependent on technology.
"Climate change is also expected to increase the frequency and/or intensity of some hazards, such as storms and drought."
The civil defence groups consist of members of four the councils, fire and emergency services, police, the National Emergency Management Agency (CDEM), St John Ambulance, Northland District Health Board, Northland Lifelines Group, which helps ensure people can access water, electricity, gas, telecommunications and transportation, Northland Welfare Co-ordination Group, and the Department of Conservation.
While police are not the lead agency on these matters, they are often critical support during weather events, Northland District Commander Superintendent Tony Hill says.
Hill believes Northland is set up well for emergencies.
"My experience leads me to believe that Northland is well prepared for these events. The CDEM team are well organised and resourced, there are regular robust meetings about preparedness and weather events including the tsunami earlier in the year was thoroughly debriefed and lessons learnt actioned."
The Co-ordinated Incident Management System management system for emergency management has been tested through Covid as well, giving the team ample opportunity to test the operability, Hill said.
"Weather events are challenging for communities and potentially more so for parts of Northland, however, we should be assured that the CDEM team are highly capable and experienced to manage these events."
A last key aspect of the councils' adaption plan addresses the impact of climate change on our ecosystem – a topic that is particularly important to Macdonald.
The pollution of our environment, eradication of species and threats from natural hazards all become more "worse in the context of climate change", Macdonald said.
"Climate change accelerates the issues we have in the biodiversity space.
"But the cool thing is, is that the solutions are linked as well. So much of what needs to do for climate change resilience for reducing carbon in the atmosphere can get amazing biodiversity outcomes."
NRC has been commended nationally for its climate change policies and serves as an example for other regional councils, according to a recent analysis.
While the work can become frustrating because councils "are playing catch-up" with work that "should have been done 20 years ago", Macdonald remained positive hoping that we could work on this as a united front.
"What was interesting about Covid was, we saw how much we can change. It illustrated the ability for us to adapt in ways we would have never guessed.
"We just get stuck in our rhythms and routines. I would love to see us become so committed to improving climate change outcomes that we make extreme but positive changes."
"We're either going to have a bit of discomfort now while we can work through things or we are pushing the most uncomfortable living conditions on the future generations.
"We have a moral obligation to search inside ourselves for what can we do now. What am I willing to do now to help my children and their children and so on to have a better life?"
Friday: How to encourage climate action
Monday: Niwa scientists predict Northland's climate
Yesterday: How can we help?
Today: What are our councils doing?
Tomorrow: How we can fight for climate justice
Friday: How to take industry into a sustainable future
Saturday: Regenerative farming and growing techniques
Monday: The future generation