A Māori burial site atop a cliff in the Bay of Plenty has collapsed onto the beach below, scattering human remains into the sand and the sea.

The coastal erosion that tore the sacred site off Ōkurei Point in Maketū this month is not an isolated incident, with hundreds of coastal urupā across the country threatened by rising seas and increasing storm events.

The urupā at Okahu Bay in central Auckland regularly floods and hapū Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei is discussing where to move it to, while in Māngere iwi are battling to save their urupā at Makaurau Marae.

Te Arawa Lakes Trust chairman Sir Toby Curtis said the remains at Maketū, which were possibly pre-European, came from one of the first burial sites in the area, dating back to the 1300s.

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The landslide at Maketū that brought human remains onto the beach from an urupā atop the cliff. Photo / Tony Pecotic
The landslide at Maketū that brought human remains onto the beach from an urupā atop the cliff. Photo / Tony Pecotic

A landslide on January 8 or 9 had unearthed the remains, with three sacks collected from Newdicks Beach below, including some identified as children's bones.

A rāhui had been put in place for six weeks, which involved a ban on collecting kaimoana shellfish or other seafood until the koiwi a tangata (human remains) had been retrieved and were reinterred.

Last year the iwi formed a climate change working group to help Te Arawa iwi and hapū with the growing issue of tackling climate change.

They were looking at changes to marae infrastructure in order to deal with the impacts of increasing severity of extreme weather events, as well as possible mitigations of sea-level rise on the Little Waihi and Maketū communities.

A rāhui was put in place after a landslide at Maketū brought human remains onto the beach from an urupā. Photo / Tony Pecotic
A rāhui was put in place after a landslide at Maketū brought human remains onto the beach from an urupā. Photo / Tony Pecotic

Scientist Sophia OIo-Whaanga, working with her iwi Te Wai o Hua at Makaurau marae in Māngere, said their urupā was on a floodplain on the banks of Ōruarangi awa, which was regularly affected by large tides and storm surges.

The iwi was doing a lot of remediation work to prevent soil eroding around the graves, but in the long term the bodies could need to be shifted.

"Exhuming the bodies is a last resort. That discussion is quite hard. It is such a tapu process, and trying to source land and resources makes it even more difficult."

The urupā at Makaurau Marae in Māngere on the banks of the tidal Ōruarangi awa. Photo / Google
The urupā at Makaurau Marae in Māngere on the banks of the tidal Ōruarangi awa. Photo / Google

There were many theories about why urupā were placed so close to the sea, OIo-Whaanga said.

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"My theory is they thought Tangaroa (God of the Sea) would take the bones back to Hawaiki.

"But the way we bury our dead has changed, we can't have coffins bobbing down the river, and with what is injected into bodies they do not biodegrade as they used to.

"With climate change upon us and rising sea levels it is becoming quite an issue."

The government's Adapting to Climate Change Stocktake, published in 2017, identified Māori as among the most vulnerable groups to climate-change impacts.

Mabel Broughton reacting to seeing the graves of her grandparents and great grandparents under water in the urupā opposite Okahu Bay after it flooded in 2017. Photo / File
Mabel Broughton reacting to seeing the graves of her grandparents and great grandparents under water in the urupā opposite Okahu Bay after it flooded in 2017. Photo / File

It predicted sea level rises of 20-40cm by 2060, and 30cm to one metre by 2100. The rise could be even greater depending on how much the globe's marine ice sheets melted.

With sea level rises the tides would become higher and storm surges come further inland.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust deputy chair Ngarimu Blair said their issue was not so much rising seas but increasing storm events flooding the urupā at Okahu Bay.

The area had a naturally high water table and while it was right next to the beach, a sewer system built in the early 1900s and later Tāmaki Dr on top acted as a drainage barrier.

"Not only was that sewer a horrific desecration of tapu and an insult to our people, it blocked water from draining from the catchment into the sea," Blair said.

The urupā in Ōrākei Domain regularly floods, with Tāmaki Dr acting as a barrier and keeping water from flowing to the sea. Photo / Google
The urupā in Ōrākei Domain regularly floods, with Tāmaki Dr acting as a barrier and keeping water from flowing to the sea. Photo / Google

Consequently in big rain events the urupā and church flooded, as happened on a grand scale in April 2017 following Cyclone Debbie.

"We experience more frequent flooding as these storm events appear to happen more regularly and with greater intensity," Blair said.

"Also a lot of the urban catchment is made of hard surfaces - roads, driveways, asphalt tennis courts - so the water comes barrelling down to Okahu Bay, and settles around the urupā."

Ōrākei Domain opposite Okahu Bay, which regularly floods in heavy rain events. Photo / File
Ōrākei Domain opposite Okahu Bay, which regularly floods in heavy rain events. Photo / File

Added to that, sea level rise predictions could see the area inundated by the end of the century, despite the sewer/road barrier.

Relocating the urupā was likely the only long-term option, but where, when and how it would be funded were all questions the hapū was working through.

"It is a very distressing prospect, but it is not only this urupā or only for Māori, but all of those cemeteries around Auckland and the country that might need to be moved."

In the mean time the hapū was making its own efforts to combat climate change including reducing emissions through plantation forestry, and installing solar panels and reducing the flows of storm and waste water in their housing developments.

Māori climate commissioner Donna Awatere-Huata said 80 per cent of the country's marae and urupā were on the coast or near flood-prone rivers.

"Many are at risk of, or are already falling into the sea. We need a new protocol for how we are going to deal with the urupā that need to be shifted, because Māoridom is not going to be able to cover the extraordinary costs when they need to be shifted."

A Wairoa hapū had been quoted $250,000 to shift their urupā, threatened by the Wairoa River, she said.

Rather than paying contractors Māori needed to have a discussion around how it could be done themselves.

"Descendants should do it themselves, with appropriate tikanga and karakia. We have got to get over the idea ordinary people can't move urupā."