Risks rising with the sea level

Action is needed now to reduce risk

Risks rising with the sea level


By Tim Grafton

The recent publication of the NZ SeaRise Te Tai Pari o Aotearoa tool and the New Zealand Government’s draft National Adaptation Plan has focussed people’s attention on climate risks and continued insurability.

For now, and for the next decade or so, insurance is expected to remain both available and relatively affordable. But if things are to stay that way, action is needed now to reduce risk.

The NZ SeaRise tool adds vertical land movement to global sea level rise data to give a net figure for every 2km around Aotearoa’s coast. For instance, rising land reduces the rate of effective sea level rise in the Bay of Plenty while sinking land exacerbates it in parts of the Wellington, Auckland and Nelson Tasman regions. Just 30cm of effective sea level rise can turn today’s one in 100 year event into something to be expected annually with key thresholds likely to be crossed in some areas by 2040.

Sea level rise alone is not the only issue here. Being neither sudden nor unexpected, it isn’t an insured risk. It does though amplify the risks and impacts of other events which are insurable such as storm surge and flooding. The increasing incidence and severity of such events will lead to increased claims, insurance risk, pricing, exclusions and excesses before, in the absence of action, cover becomes unavailable.

The Government recently published a draft National Adaptation Plan. It does a reasonable job in identifying the issues and sets out a raft of actions, plans and new legislation to address them. Some related funding has also been tagged. There is though one big problem with it: the timetable for action is far too slow. We cannot afford to wait even a couple of years for legislation to go through and longer still for it to take effect before communities make and implement resilience plans.

Local government should act at once to prohibit development in high-risk areas to avoid creating future stranded assets, uninsured economic, environmental and cultural losses, social disruption and risk to life.

Right now, communities have time to plan how to make what’s already in place more resilient. Options include changing floor levels in new builds and upgrading stormwater and other flood systems.

Another option people instinctively reach for is the building of sea walls, stop-banks and other hard defences. There are often better, more natural, options such as managed wetland, dune and floodplain systems to planting to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and slips. There are already many excellent examples of these approaches across Aotearoa.

The NZ SeaRise tool will help determine the effective life of such schemes and if they offer a cost-effective way to buy time or if they’d be a short-term waste of money that only buys a false sense of security.

Some communities will need to discuss managed retreat. These will be very hard conversations to have, especially for mana whenua. Managed retreat plans will require long term planning backed by well identified funding. They may involve land swaps or buy and lease back schemes of existing property so it can continue to be utilised until conditions dictate it is time to vacate.

Aotearoa New Zealand currently benefits from among the highest levels of all-risks cover in the world. We know more about climate related risks than ever before, and we know what our options are for building resilience over the short medium and long term. The science and real-world trends are clear. We have a window of a decade or more where we can have high confidence around insurability, we must use that time wisely and act with urgency to secure it over the long term.

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