The starting point for rebuilding dislocated communities needs to be restoring the natural systems that help reduce the effects of extreme weather events. That will better reveal where relocated communities can safely rebuild
Opinion: The way the Government approaches the post-Cyclone Gabrielle rebuild needs careful thought lest the mistakes of the past are revisited.
The primary focus is of course on people, their houses and communities. So many have had their lives turned upside down. This is an unprecedented tragedy.
Many houses and communities will need to be relocated. The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) has just completed phase one of a major project looking at managed retreat and has canvassed the ethical and affordable options as to who pays. These are complicated policy challenges. There are some lessons from overseas that might help.
But the approach taken also needs to look at restoring the damaged natural systems that contributed to the extent of the damage caused to communities and property. Building back better is good so far as it goes, but we need to build back nature.
That means a focus on the hill country that released much of the sediment and slash (the logging debris left after a harvest) and restoring it to its natural state: permanent native forests. That will help with land stability and avoid damaging volumes of discharges of sediment from inappropriate exotic forestry and marginal farming operations.
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In parallel with that, the commercial forest sector needs to remove all slash from the coastal hills, including so-called slash traps, and really make an effort to clean things up. We can’t leave that material lying there, waiting for the next deluge.
Allowing clear-felling on steep erosion-prone land as a permitted activity or via a council resource consent fails to recognise that climate change has arrived with a vengeance in these islands
Then on the coastal plains, the focus should be on allowing rivers room to roam across flood plains during intense rainfall events. Climate change means the days when we tried to tame rivers by man-made structures have gone forever.
Slowing down the velocity of floodwaters by recreating wetlands will help reduce flood peaks. Wetlands will also help trap the reduced volumes of silt released from restored upper catchments and better protect the coastal marine environment and its ecosystems which have suffered so badly at the hands of Cyclone Gabrielle and similar past events.
The starting point for rebuilding dislocated communities needs to be restoring the natural systems that help reduce the effects of extreme weather events. That focus will reveal more clearly where relocated communities can safely rebuild.
A further important step in the rebuild is the proposed inquiry into forestry and other land use practices in Tairāwhiti. That is expected to be announced soon. It must be a formal Public Inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2013. That category is specifically targeted at investigating policy failures. It must be genuinely independent and must not be run out of one of the complicit agencies of Government such as the New Zealand Forest Service Te Uru Rakau. It needs powers to subpoena experts and cross-examine them and must be free from conflicts such as including forest sector players on the Inquiry. And it needs the right people to be appointed. This is no time for a whitewash.
Finally, we need a fresh review of the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry that focuses on where clear-felling should be banned. That is the key regulation governing forestry. Allowing clear-felling on steep erosion-prone land as a permitted activity or via a council resource consent fails to recognise that climate change has arrived with a vengeance in these islands.
If commercial forests are to continue – and we need wood – then the sector must meet its environmental obligations and shift to continuous cover or coupe harvesting methods, as many other countries in the world use routinely. That review is urgent and should be run out of the Ministry for the Environment.