Thousands of families across Te Ika-a-Māui face the daunting task of dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle: metres of deep sediment, blockades of slash, and flood-damaged homes, businesses, streets, and public spaces. We must collectively rise to the challenge of protecting our communities from future climate disasters. Because the next climate disaster is a matter of when - not if - investing in nature-positive solutions is both urgent and essential.
The estimated cost of the recovery will be in the billions. Of course, the cost is more than billions of dollars; it is also in the lives lost and trauma endured by thousands of Kiwis affected by Cyclone Gabrielle. Our first priority must be to support the whānau and communities impacted by this disaster to reclaim their homes, livelihoods, and their sense of safety and security in the places they live. We must also take urgent action to prevent and minimise the impact of future climate events.
Devastating cyclones, storms and floods are striking with increased intensity and frequency - and over the coming years, they will get worse. We cannot allow partisan desire to prioritise short-term fixes over long-term solutions to result in more families and communities losing their homes, livelihoods or lives.
Work is already underway on the vexed questions around managed retreat: Who decides when a community should relocate, and where to? Who shoulders the cost - which, nationally, could be in the hundreds of billions of dollars? What happens to our most threatened species when their last few hectares of habitat are destroyed by human action or climate impacts? Even with policy development proceeding at pace, New Zealand is unlikely to achieve the managed retreat of at-risk communities and ecosystems before the end of this decade.
Future storms and cyclones are not waiting for that.
Aotearoa is not alone in grappling with the impacts of a changing climate; globally, other countries and communities are facing the same issues. Increasingly, they are looking to nature for solutions.
Nature-based solutions - large-scale coastal and freshwater wetland restoration, riparian planting, the re-wetting of peatlands, and the establishment of permanent indigenous forests in erosion-prone areas - are often cheaper and more effective over the long-term than hard infrastructure, like seawalls. They also deliver significant co-benefits by removing more carbon from the atmosphere, providing habitat for native species, improving water quality, and creating employment and recreational opportunities.
New Zealand’s Emissions Reduction Plan, National Adaptation Plan, and Te Mana o te Taiao - our National Biodiversity Strategy - commit our government to prioritising nature-based solutions in regulation, policy, and planning. However, to date, this commitment has not been backed-up by any palpable action.
To protect our communities, the places they call home, our indigenous species and ecosystems from the impacts of future climate disasters, the time for action is now.
We should start with a coordinated programme of large-scale wetland restoration in the areas most at risk of coastal inundation or inland flooding. Since inhabiting these islands, humans have destroyed 90% of their wetlands. Over 300,000 hectares of wetlands, nearly half of which are on publicly-owned lands, can be restored - improving our resilience to future climate disasters, enhancing water quality, and providing habitat for some of our most threatened native species.
We should also work towards re-wetting Aotearoa’s 700,000 hectares of peatlands. Peat bogs can store 20 to 50 times more carbon than typical forest ecosystems, whilst simultaneously protecting communities from flood events by reducing runoff and slowing the flow of water downstream. Re-wetting the peatlands on public conservation land alone would remove 300,000 tonnes of carbon annually - more than the emissions footprint of New Zealand’s core public service.
Current policy settings provide that it is significantly cheaper for companies to plant exotic tree species on erosion-prone slopes than it is to establish permanent native forests - even though we know permanent native afforestation and riparian planting can reduce erosion by up to 90%. Our communities are bearing the cost of the environmental and social impacts of these decisions, when the resulting sediment loads smother their kaimoana beds, and slash events decimate their bridges, roads, paddocks, and orchards. The recently announced ministerial inquiry into forest slash is welcome; however, changes to wider policy settings - including the Emissions Trading Scheme - are urgently needed to incentivise the regeneration and establishment of permanent native forests.
Going forward we must work together, by supporting and empowering government, councils, industry, and businesses to adopt nature-based solutions to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Doing so is critical to the resilience of our communities, species, and ecosystems most vulnerable to future climate disaster. WWF-New Zealand calls on our political leaders to take a long-term and holistic view of ‘building back better’, and to immediately prioritise nature-positive investment for the benefit of both people and planet.