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Farm advice: Flood plains and freshwater

Fertile plains and abundant freshwater resources underpin NZ’s agricultural economy. Recent extreme weather events that raged across the North Island have sparked concern and a need for reflection.

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Stephen McNally

These events, devastating for many families, have shone a spotlight on the pressure placed on the spirit of our rural communities, farmers, growers, and all stakeholders in the food supply chain. The impacts have been heart-wrenching yet have revealed the incredible adaptability that defines our agricultural sector. But there’s a limit to what can be absorbed and draws attention to what needs to be acknowledged as a driver for change.

Resilience amid adversity

Reflecting on other past catastrophic floods, such as in Canterbury and Marlborough, we’re reminded that our predecessors faced similar challenges. Our farming communities have consistently demonstrated a determination to rebuild and progress.

While this very resilience has allowed us to confront adversity head-on the weight of evidence shows it’s long past time to have a national strategic plan for managing our freshwater resources. The balance needed makes us reflect on the challenges of a broad spectrum of water users: for drinking, stock, irrigation, industrial, energy, and environmental flows.

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There’s growing recognition of the urgency to address climate change pressures

Cyclones Hale and Gabrielle’s recent impacts, while tragic, serve as a reminder of both the progress we’ve made in disaster response and prevention and where there are still gaps and inequity. Globally, modern emergency services and improved infrastructure have significantly reduced the annual death toll from disasters but the impact on land can endure for decades. While this showcases our capacity to adapt and protect communities, we still need to provide a source of decision-making certainty amid the uncertainty of our primary sector.

The call for an Environment Select Committee inquiry that commenced in August 2023 into community-led managed retreat and adaptation funding signals a growing recognition of the urgency to address climate change pressures and consider the need for supportive legislation. It presents an opportunity for a national dialogue on how our land and water use decisions will impact both our rural communities and the productive land that sustains our food supply.

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As well as floods, we must remember recent years have seen New Zealand grappling with unprecedented droughts across almost all regions. In response, we again witnessed the unity of our farming community, as they shared their limited feed stocks supported in part by government relief efforts. These experiences underscore the vulnerability of our food production and supply chains to the whims and extremes of a changing climate. The weather outlook for the 2023/24 season would suggest we may be about to see another long, hot, dry summer, and the irony of that will make those still grappling with flood clean-up shake their heads in wonderment.

Strategic decision-making

As we contemplate the possibility of relocating communities and businesses away from flood-prone plains and coastal areas, we must prioritise the need for certainty. Certainty is essential not only for our rural food producers but also for New Zealand society as a whole. We must carefully weigh the implications of such decisions on our agricultural landscape while considering the broader social, environmental, cultural, and economic objectives. The managed retreat consultation process includes an expert advisory panel analysis that offers invaluable insights into the Government’s views and efforts on climate adaptation. It suggested the term Planned Relocation.

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The managed retreat language should not be about defeat and retreat; it needs to be about forging a path forward that ensures both resilience and certainty. Irrigation New Zealand also favours the term ‘Planned Relocation’, which reflects on and steers a more constructive outlook on adaptation, emphasising the pursuit of new opportunities rather than mere escape from disaster.

This positive mindset shift aligns with a commitment to maintaining certainty for communities in the face of adversity and making decisions that are soundly based on supporting science. Before we embark on removing our farmers and growers from the path of floods, we need to be sure we can reestablish our food production on equivalent fertile land that’s well-serviced with reliable water that will also endure the inevitable future dry periods.

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Even as flood clean-up continues, NZ could face a long dry summer

At Irrigation New Zealand, we recognise the importance of sound land use decision-making, water allocation regulatory efficiency, and as an overarching guide, the need for a national freshwater strategy. We need to prioritise a robust decision-making approach to all hazards, not just the ones front and centre in our headlines. This strategy would provide a roadmap for managing our land and water resources more sustainably, ensuring certainty for both rural food producers and New Zealand society as a whole.

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