Saturday, December 2, 2023

Global conservation group backs climate resilience in Hawke’s Bay

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The Nature Conservancy offers proven new thinking on flood plains.
The Nature Conservancy aims to bring international expertise and experience in natural flood plain management to work alongside Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and farmers.
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A conservation group partnering with Hawke’s Bay Regional Council to help develop more resilient communities (nga hapori pakari) is bringing international experience to match up with the council’s well-established local knowledge on the region’s land use challenges.

David Banks, head of conservation at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), visited New Zealand briefly to acquaint himself with the Hawke’s Bay disaster zone.

TNC originated 70 years ago in the United States, buying land threatened with development, but its model in Asia Pacific is more focused on contributing its conservation expertise and science to community-led initiatives.

Today the NGO has 4000 staff in 76 countries and territories.

One high-profile example of its community-focused work is the response to Cape Town’s water crisis in 2018 when the South African city was down to mere days of supply, only to be saved by timely rains. 

“Our scientists figured out one of the biggest problems was non-native species sucking up the groundwater,” said Banks.

The city of Cape Town invested about $4 million and TNC about the same to clear non-natives from critical areas to avoid the impact. Overall, 20,000ha of land was cleared, returning 9 billion litres a year to the water system.

“It has not completely solved the problem, but it has abated it and long term we think we can get a handle on this,” he said. 

In NZ in 2017, TNC launched a programme focused on landscape-scale conservation and protecting marine ecosystems in Aotearoa and in the Pacific. 

Now led by acting country director Carl McGuinness, TNC-Aotearoa New Zealand partners with the government, business, iwi, researchers and local communities to achieve conservation outcomes. 

These include restoring shellfish-based ecosystems in the Hauraki Gulf and supporting community conservation collaborations such as the Kotahitanga mō te Taiao alliance at the top of the South Island.

For Hawke’s Bay, McGuinness has put forward the concept of building resilient land use through a concept known as “flood plains by design”. 

In practice, it provides rivers with broader passages to flow over during flood events, rather than trying to engineer them into tighter, defined spaces.

“It is about how do we allow rivers to move and live and breathe in a system, and what would you put where, so it can go where it will go,” McGuinness said.

This type of community-led initiative, delivering multiple benefits to local communities in an integrated floodplain management approach, can reduce the impact of future flood events.  

“It has also been shown that every dollar invested in proactive riverine protection can save $7 in post-flood recovery – apart from all the other benefits, it makes good economic sense to invest in reducing future risk.”

As an example of the TNC’s experience in flood plain management he cited Yakima, a city on the Yakima River in the US’s Washington state with a horticultural hinterland.

It had a history of repeated flooding, and ever higher stop banks were built in response until early this millennium.

Working with TNC, authorities developed wider flood plains with stepped back stop banks. Some properties that flooded were bought out on a willing-seller basis, and flood conveyance zones were established where people were paid for allowing their land to flood.

A few weeks after the re-construction was finished another flood event occurred and had significantly less impact, with the flood conveyance zones channelling water off before it got to the urban community.

Banks and McGuinness said communities have to own such schemes, acknowledging this can be a tough ask in the wake of an event as extreme as Gabrielle.

“Certainly, having people who understand how these communities like to talk about their future and how they process and make decisions is an important start. 

“It’s not about engaging a community, but being led by a community,” McGuinness said.

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