Urgent call for flood protection funds

Ashburton Staveley Road (pictured), known as the Greenstreet, was among the areas badly hit by May flooding in 2021.

New Zealanders cannot afford to bear the future burden of increasingly severe and frequent floods posing a danger to lives and livelihoods, Environment Canterbury says.

The regional body has a clear and urgent message following the release of a report from Te Uru Kahika – Regional and Unitary Councils Aotearoa, which calls for national leadership and urgent action to meet climate change-induced flood hazard risks; costs must be shared between regional councils and central government.

Environment Canterbury chair Jenny Hughey said Cantabrians knew only too well the effects of flooding.

‘‘Floods displace people from their homes, stop them reaching work, schools, medical care and families, and do untold damage to community wellbeing,” she said.

‘‘Flood schemes protect not just those living and working near the rivers, but everyone whose access to supplies, power, medical care, schools, workplaces, and family is impacted when roading and other critical infrastructure is damaged.’’

The May/June 2021 Canterbury flooding caused about $20 million of flood infrastructure damage, with $12 million to be borne by ratepayers and recovery work expected to take up to two years to complete.

“Thankfully, there was no loss of life. The town of Ashburton was saved from greater damage by a well-designed urban flood protection scheme, but many rural landowners were severely affected,” she said.

Infrastructure repairs are a long-term undertaking, often taking years to complete and need to be managed in addition to ongoing infrastructure maintenance.

“We’ve just recently completed a series of ‘Make it Safe’ repair works on the Rangitata River and are still remediating 12 critically damaged sites on the lower Waitaki River, all caused by significant flooding from back in 2019,” she said.

The Te Uru Kahika report shows the scale of Crown assets and values protected by flood protection schemes, advocating the efficient functioning of the economy and communities is a responsibility that must be shared between regional councils and central government.

Devastating flood events across the country highlighted the need to revisit funding models, many of which have been in place for decades.

The estimated cost of improving the quality of protection provided by the schemes is significant.

Currently regional and unitary councils invest about $200 million each year in flood protection schemes. This is estimated to fall short of what’s needed by $150 million per annum. Over the ten years considered, that would be $1.5 billion of under-investment in critical flood protection schemes.

A shared investment today meant better protection for current and future generations, lower overall recovery costs and importantly, mitigation now may actually save lives, she said.

Regional councils had demonstrated their expertise and capability to deliver such fit-for-the-future flood protection solutions, Mrs Hughey said.

“We appreciate the one-off funding support received to date from central government to help us tackle the challenges that climate change presents.

However, this is about ensuring a sustainable, longer-term response to climate change impacts, and we can’t rely solely on Canterbury ratepayers to fund the necessary solutions,” she said.