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Making space for water: how New Zealand is building resilience to storm floods

13 June 2017 Author: Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Unpredictable, extreme, severe and more frequent – weather is changing and we need to plan for it, as Isobel Bruun-Kiaer finds out in New Zealand.

Cyclone Cook, ex-Cyclone Debbie, the Tasman Tempest, the Hawkes Bay fires, and the Port Hill fires – these are just some of the extreme weather events that you might have heard of in the media that New Zealand had to contend with in early 2017.

For many people across NZ they have been devastating – real life events causing flooding, land slips, power outages, fallen trees, blocked roads, storm surges, coastal inundation and sink holes.

In March, the Tasman Tempest in March brought more than 150% of the normal rainfall for the month with more rain falling in 48 hours in parts of North Island than would normally fall the entire month. Within the next couple of weeks came Ex-Cyclone Debbie with more rain, followed by Cyclone Cook with yet more rain, making landfall in Tauranga.

The frequency and severity of these types of events are projected to increase. This means such severe and extreme events might become more devastating and more regular. This has consequences for people and places, and not only in New Zealand.

George Pepler - Global TemperatureGlobal temperatures are on the rise. Source: ClimateCentral

No single weather event is caused by climate change - weather and climate have always been variable. But, the warmer sea temperatures and a warmer and wetter atmosphere (as you can see above) are contributing to more extreme and more frequent weather events.

So, what do we do about it?  

Preparedness .Information sharing. Emergency planning. Long term measures. Resilience. There is no single solution, but all of these play a part in how severe the impacts will be. Planning has a central role in this.

One of Tauranga’s long-term responses to planning for flooding from such weather events seems to have paid off. Although Cyclone Cook made landfall in Tauranga, the city’s improved storm water infrastructure and planning for a 1 in 100 year event have seemed to alleviate the flood impact felt by the local community.

Following a severe flood event in 2005, Tauranga put in motion an initiative to strategically reassess storm water management across the city taking into account climate change and integrating this into planning for the city’s growth. Working in partnership with the regional and district councils, Tauranga City Council has factored in increased high intensity rainfall into their planning blueprint for the next 50 years of growth and development:

“While the annual precipitation in the Bay of Plenty is expected to decrease with climate change,the frequency of extreme rainfall events and subsequent flooding is projected to increase. The expected changes in rainfall patterns in the Bay of Plenty have significant implications for planning and development, including storm water infrastructure.” (Adaptation in Tauranga, Ministry for Environment 2008)

There are two elements to this: flood hazard mapping which understands and models water movement, catchments and infrastructure around the city in relation to a 1 in 100 year storm event, and physical interventions that make space for water.

George Pepler - Storm Water InfrastructureStorm water infrastructure doing its job   Photo: Rosalie Liddle-Crawford/SunLive

Thanks to these measures, the City of Tauranga did not fare too badly even though some areas in the Bay of Plenty region were heavily flooded by Cyclone Cook.

This is just one example of a response to the potential impacts of climate change. Imagine what could be achieved by integrating this into other aspects of planning – not just for natural hazards, but looking towards the health and well being impacts of climate change. 

The limits of planning are what you make them. The opportunities of planning are there to be grasped! Building resilience to climate change is about more than preserving the status quo, it’s a chance to improve governance for current and future populations and the environment. It is the chance to be progressive.

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer is the 2016/2017 RTPI George Pepler International Award recipient. She is exploring how Tauranga City Council in New Zealand is planning for resilience to climate change. Isobel tweets at @climateNZ