Saturday, December 2, 2023

Counting the cost of rebuilding rural NZ after Cyclone Gabrielle  

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Cyclone is likely to open the door to the looming conversation about vulnerability to climate change and an affordable response to it, providing communities with infrastructure fit for purpose.
Rural communities may have to familiarise themselves with a broader definition of ‘managed retreat’ when assessing rebuild likelihood, says economist Bill Kaye-Blake.
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After rural communities (hapori taiwhenua) have scraped up the silt, re-fenced paddocks, and hammered out repairs, policymakers will be starting on the maths of “how much”, “where” and “for who” to reinstate rural infrastructure in battered regions

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has already intimated that, despite pumping $250 million into road repairs and $50m into grower/farmer recovery, the future of some roads and even highways is up for discussion. 

With that come some major implications for the future of rural communities along and at the end of many of those roads.

Economist Dr Bill Kaye-Blake has long studied rural communities’ strength and ability to remain viable and relevant in a dynamic, climate change (panoni āhuarangi) environment. Most recently he  contributed to the book on this subject, Heartland Strong.

He cautions his expertise is more on longer-term outcomes after such events, rather than the immediate, messy, heartbreaking business of disaster response. 

“You are having people say ‘We need better roads to an area.’ But on the other hand, people are also saying ‘We may need to see some sort of managed retreat from some areas.’ 

“It can risk coming across as heartless discussing it in this recovery phase. But agencies do have budgets and will be asked about where the best place for their money is to go.”

Cyclone Gabrielle is likely to open the door to the looming conversation about vulnerability to climate change and an affordable response to it, providing communities with infrastructure fit for purpose.

“This provides an opportunity to get things right for the future.”

He notes the phrase “managed retreat” is most associated with movement from eroding coasts or riverbanks. 

But it may need to be interpreted in a wider sense, encompassing communities restricted by vulnerable roading and power networks proving simply too expensive to restore. 

“It may be that land use change that comes in Gabrielle’s wake will also influence retreat. For example if farms are no longer farmed, there is a shift in the type of community and facilities that go with it.”

He acknowledges that to physically relocate a community is a significant challenge. 

In 2005 when the tiny settlement of Matata was struck by a major flood-slip event, it cost $15m in central and local government funds to buy out at-risk properties and relocate residents, along with a bitter, lengthy court battle. 

Today a large part of the tiny town is a red zone, banning future building.

“In an environment with a full joint government approach, you probably could do it. All agencies will make their costings on restoring their assets, roading, education, health, and housing.”

Sometimes those calculations will deliver a decision to shut down a facility. 

He had experience with a Southland school that shut, sending children to a larger school in Gore. Subsequently the road was improved, and ultimately the community felt it had been the right move.

“But we also have to consider what is government’s responsibility to iwi? Under the Treaty there may well be obligations to support small communities with strong tribal affiliations.”

Efforts may focus on strengthening a community’s emergency preparedness, rather than upgrading a road network that is rising in repair costs after every event. 

Kaye-Blake said it is unlikely rural communities can afford to take over roads councils no longer want to fund, such is the cost.  

The eye-watering costs were highlighted by estimates that Kenepuru Road in Marlborough would cost $160m to rebuild for about 1000 people along it, against the region’s entire repair budget of $25m.

A recent Farmers Weekly visit to Ruatoria on State Highway 35 found the community planning to prepare shipping containers as survival pods, containing generators, Starlink modems, water treatment plants and dried food to weather future isolating events for longer.

Research has shown that five years after an event residential property prices tend to trend close to where they were pre-event. 

Kaye-Blake said given farms do not tend to sell as frequently as homes, it would be interesting to see if these events affect values for a period of time, and how farming communities respond to possible land use change.

“We do have to remember, we are talking about people – it is easy to sit in an office with a spread sheet and say ‘no’ to a rebuild without appreciating the impact on those people.”

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