Covering Climate Now: Kiwis fighting for their waterfront as coastal communities face future at sea's mercy

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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A recent report found 72,000 New Zealanders are currently exposed to extreme coastal flooding Source: 1 NEWS

Coastal communities are facing a future where they are increasingly at the mercy of the sea.

In the next 40 years, The Royal Society of New Zealand expects rising sea levels could make 1 in 100 year events like ex-Cyclone Fehi much more common, more like every year or so. 

Ruby Bay resident Chrissie Small says the community has become “closer and tightknit” since the storm and has “made us look at future-proofing our neighbourhood”.

A recent report found 72,000 New Zealanders and 50,000 buildings are currently exposed to extreme coastal flooding.

Just this month in Gisborne, emergency measures were taken to protect these properties after a sea wall was washed away. 

But long-term fixes pose difficult questions

Tasman District Council Environmental Policy Team Leader Maxine Day says some of the hardest ones are “around what the council is going to do and what the plan is for the community”.

The council has embarked on a project that is working towards long-term adaptive planning for sea level rise and coastal hazards. 

It’s shared a range of sea level scenarios with households and businesses that could be at risk, emphasising “that there's a huge amount of uncertainty with those figures and those timeframes” says Ms Day.

She says saleability of properties is the primary concern “and also the effect on their valuations and rates”. Overall, she says she’s found most people to be positive about the future and what work is underway.

But some of those who live in Ruby Bay feel the council is leaving too much in nature's hands.

Bruno Lemke explains that in the ex-cyclone Fehi event, waves came over the seawall that “were never going to stop, but then there was no mechanism of getting rid of it after that”.

They’re frustrated by what they see as a lack of basic infrastructure to protect them.

“For a week properties were sitting in blackwater which is totally unnatural and unhealthy situation for us all,” says Chrissie Small.

Ruby Bay stormwater drain. Source: 1 NEWS

The council says there's always “competing priorities” for funding.

“So while one part of the community wants pump stations, there's another part of the community that needs wastewater infrastructure or a whole new stormwater system,” explains Ms Day.

Insurers say it’s vital the country adapts to avoid a costly future

Within the last three years, insurance companies have seen record losses “in the order of 226 to 240 million,” says Insurance Council New Zealand CThis story is part of  a week of special coverage of climate change from 1 NEWS'. Other stories in the series include a look at flooding, the situation in farming and ocean temperature rises.hief Executive Tim Grafton.

“Ultimately if we sit on our hands and do nothing and take no action then we are going to be facing problems that go well beyond insurance. They are social, community and economic problems”.

Premiums may result in places where the risks are increasing.

“And you may get to the point where they might be an exclusion, so the exclusion might relate to those extreme weather events because you still want to have insurance for your house against fire and other form of damage that could occur,” Mr Grafton explains.

A waterfront worth fighting for

Coastlines may be changing, but Ruby Bay resident Annie Coster says she’s never “heard of anybody say that they want to leave because of it”.

“It's just a really, really wonderful place to live, “ explains Jo Randell. “I couldn't pick being anywhere else than here”.

This story is part of a week of special coverage of climate change from 1 NEWS. Stories in the series include a look at flooding, the situation in farming and ocean temperature rises.