New Zealand water not for giving away

When the news broke that a Chinese investor group had been able to buy up a consent for taking fresh water and bottling it without being charged for anything other than monitoring, I was not very surprised. With the Government attitude of indifference to fresh water as a resource and its deliberate fudging of fresh water quality standards, it was unrealistic to expect anything else.

There are a number of problems with the buying of this consent. It goes against everything most New Zealanders would want to have happen with their fresh water resource and it raises ethical questions about looking after our natural environment.

So, what are those problems?

  1. The consent that has been granted is for 15 years. This is a very long time in a world where the environment is under constant and growing stress. Before the consent expires the physical parameters of the aquifers that are considered when issuing a consent are likely to have changed so much that the consent is rendered obsolete.
  2. Does Christchurch have 4,100 spare cubic metres of water per day to be bottled and sold overseas? When a resource is 100% allocated, it is 100% allocated and – contrary to the belief of politicians and councillors – like 100% of anything else that means there is no more of the resource available for allocation. To attempt to do is to start to deplete the allocation for other water takes.
  3. The deceit in not telling ratepayers that this consent has been bought by non-New Zealand investors will anger many. I spent good portion of today wondering what else is being hidden. It turns out that others have been bottling water in New Zealand, including near Tai Tapu for years.
  4. No royalties are paid to the Crown and the bottling companies does not get charged anything except to cover the monitoring costs of Environment Canterbury.

I believe that the lapse time for water consents should be significantly reduced. I further believe that upon lapsing the consent holder should be reminded to give effect to the consent within a matter of months, or surrender it within that time frame after which it should be revoked. Due to the sensitivity of water as a resource, that the monitoring requirements should be steeper than they currently are – more frequent monitoring and a review of consent conditions every few years should become mandatory.

But the purchasing of that consent also raises ethical issues. Water is a resource that upon no longer being needed by one user, should depart in the same or better condition than that in which it arrived. It is a resource that no one, person, group, company, nation and so on can claim true ownership to. The boundaries of water are only those defined by the parameters of the Earth as a planetary system and any structure – man made or not – that it cannot seep through. It’s need is universal – without water the natural systems cannot sustain life. Degrading it as a resource ultimately degrades the planet and everything living on it.

No amount of science, economics or politics can change the universality of water. But trying to explain that is easier said than done.

New Zealand needs a revolution in land use planning

With all of the talk about housing going on, I find it somewhat surprising that no one has attempted to look at the idea of apartment living more closely. Given the lack of flat land in some urban areas and issues that go with reclaimed land, the current trend towards big single story houses and needless landscaping, and the development of infrastructure with more of this wastage in mind, strikes me as absurd.

I personally find the word revolution too emotionally and politically charged to use as a general rule. However there is coming a time in land use planning where it might be the most suitable way of describing the growing need to change how we approach land use planning.

The quarter acre dream is dead. If not it should be. The expansive suburbia ideals of the 1950’s and 1960’s need to be exited from planning. With our limited space, and geographical challenges such as the narrow isthmus in Auckland or the long corridor zones of Wellington, it is simply not realistic to continue to pursue. In its place we need to be prepared to go vertical with residential complexes, have communal vegetable patches in order to teach future generations about self sufficiency.

Planning law needs to become substantially more accommodating to apartment complexes. Too often politicians favour loosening up land zoning changes, such as changing industrial zoning to residential when it needs a substantial clean up first or zoning an area at high risk from flooding to something that permits intensive development. The current thinking  In doing so, the theorem around public transport will hopefully change so that cars have a less of a role in private transport. The idea that if you build where ever the roading network will simply follow suit and everyone can drive themselves, needs to go. Smart cities integrate with bus networks, and – where possible – railway networks.

Is the urban area a rough blob shape with a clearly defined centre? If so, a ring and radial network of roads and railways may work best. It looks like a bike wheel with the radial routes being the spokes, and the ring routes being the rim and so forth. In New Zealand the best example would have been pre-earthquake Christchurch. Globally Tokyo and Moscow provide good examples of such planning theory. This theory worked well prior to the earthquakes of 2010-11, where Christchurch’s bus network looked much like the model described. It might still work in the future if certainty about the reconstruction of the city centre can be obtained.

In the case of Auckland, urban sprawl and a growing motorway network with no real vision other than build more motorways is becoming an increasing problem. I was quite shocked in 1998 to see hectares of land disappearing under new commercial development displacing farms or fruit or vegetable growing businesses. The scale of the development, and the lack of regard that seemed to be given towards issues such as storm water run off, infrastructure and so forth.

I do not know how or when this revolution will start or what form it should take, but it plain to me that the status quo is not working.

Climate change: Believer? Denier? Or something else?

In election year many issues come to the fore with individual parties pushing the ones that are nearest and dearest to them. Some like National and A.C.T. push a pro business agenda, believing that wealth and economic development are key to progress, whilst others such as Labour and the Greens have a heavier environmental and social focus.

Over the years, the focus of Labour and the Greens in New Zealand has been increasingly focussed around climate change and how to combat it. Contrast with the business as usual approach of National and the outright denial of such a problem existing of A.C.T.. But is climate change all that the Greens make it out to be? And is someone like me, simply pointing out physical geography and geophysics have a role to play as well, a believer, a denier or something else?

According to the Greens and other like minded parties, 97% of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is an immediate threat. They say that there is a risk that the Earth will have the full 2.0ºC rise in temperatures in the next several decades because of unchecked emissions of carbon based gases; that man made climate change is having an irreparable impact on the climate, the ecosystem of this planet and how we live.

However there are some physical processes going on that none of the parties committed to reducing potentially harmful emissions are prepared to admit, or their admission has been vague:

  1. The Earth is not a perfect round geoidal sphere as people might think. In fact it is more pear shape when one looks at the distribution of ice across the northern and southern polar regions. We look at the northern and the southern polar regions and we wonder where the ice is going. Are we sure that as the distribution of the caps evolves that ice is not transit as water between polar regions? When we look at the isostasy of the ice, we need to remember that the surface portion is just a fraction of what we are seeing, so whilst there might only be a small piece of ice above the surface it could have a very substantial mass below the surface – only a tine fraction of the total mass is visible above sea level.
  2. The Earth has been warmer in the past. Christchurch in New Zealand sits on land that was underwater as far inland as the current University of Canterbury site in Ilam  just 6,000 years ago. Boat sheds in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum were on the beach nearly 2,000 years ago when the eruption of Vesuvius destroyed the town – now they are several hundred metres inland. This discovery was made by archaeologists trying to piece together the history of the town and its layout. How does the Earth compare today in terms of temperature to early A.D.?
  3. Erosion is a constant aspect of physical geography in process. We know that coral atoll islands are formed on top of ancient volcanoes that have gradually sunk back into the sea. You can see an entire chain of such islands in Hawaii, extending over 1,000 kilometres from the Big Island in the southeast past Oahu (where Honolulu is)and Kauai, out to Midway Island, some several million years old and so low in altitude that a tsunami caused by a large earthquake in 1952 or 1957 was able to travel several hundred metres down the runway. Some of these islands are just a couple metres above sea level at their highest altitudes, making them very susceptible to any large tide – even a king tide at the upper end of the island’s tidal range could cause significant flooding. Erosive processes will eventually erode the islands back into the sea and flood the lands that tiny atoll nations such as Niue, Kiribati and so forth now rather precariously sit on.

By virtue of having mentioned all of this, does that make me a denialist? Some people will say yes, as I am questioning common thinking by scientists, but am I really trying to discredit their stand point, or am I merely pointing out some basic geophysics and phyiscal geography?

I think not. I simply want to draw peoples attention to some facts that the Green and Labour parties among others constantly over look when they talk about climate change. I am not trying to make a blatant case of denial because that would be to point blank deny such an environmental challenge exists.

So, my question to you is: am I a believer of climate change, a denier or am I something else?

El Nino phase brewing?

During the autumn of 2016 New Zealand was subject in many areas to an “Indian Summer”, where for a prolonged period, long after the official autumn period had started, summer like conditions remained in a gradually decaying state. Even in mid May there were still temperatures in the low-mid 20ºC range. A year later and things could not be more different.

After a Summer that spent most of the time in neutral – where the Southern Oscillation is in neither negative (La Nina) or positive (El Nino)territory, the E.N.S.O. index is beginning to drop again. This suggests an El Nino revival may be going to occur in the latter half of this year. At this stage an El Nino watch is in force, suggesting that there is a potential 50% chance of the index entering positive territory later in 2017. It becomes an alert when the probability is considered to be 70% or greater. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research has shown the strength in the El Nino and La Nina phases in the chart below.

New Zealand has had a chequered record with El Nino phases. In the 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1997-98 the strong El Nino phases in those periods caused severe drought in the south and east as well as abnormally high rainfall in the west. During the 1997-98 event over a 13 month period, there was no more than two consecutive days without a rainfall event of some sort on the West Coast.

La Nina phases can lead to drought in Canterbury and other locations in the south and southwest with lesser rain. This was well demonstrated in the phase that started in late 1998 and persisted through to late 2001. During the summer of 1998-99 river levels in Canterbury dropped to as low as 29m³s-¹ in the Waimakariri River, which has a minimum flow of 37m³s-¹, below which irrigation is not permitted.

I find the neutral phases, which seem to be somewhat rarer to be the most interesting. Neutral phases generally determine no particular preference for wind directions, meaning all quarter winds may occur at some point or another. Around the Pacific basin, E.N.S.O. neutral phases generally suggest average rainfall and temperatures will exist. But they are generally transit phases between El Nino and La Nina patterns.

A testing climate

At a meeting recently in the tiny West Coast settlement of Granity, 35 kilometres north of Westport, climate change and mitigation came up in the debate. A local property owner raised the question about what the Buller District Council was going to do with regards to coastal erosion, as his property is right on the coast. The answer was not to his liking.

Climate change is a testing subject when it comes to debate. Some people go so far as to say it simply does not exist and that the whole scientific basis for suggesting climate change does is non-existent. Others, particularly those of Green persuasion say not only does it exist, but that it could cause irreversible and overwhelmingly negative effects in our life time if decision makers do not act quickly.  The general consensus of the scientific community is that, yes, climate change does exist and that there are changes in progress now because it exists that if they are not addressed in the next two generations, will have effects that cannot be undone in a human life time.

Granity is one of many New Zealand communities that will be grappling with stormier seas in the near future. Already we see large storms happening more frequently. In the future they could become more intense in terms of wind and produced, last longer and start earlier. As the local at the Granity meeting found out, the local council is likely to only have limited financial and physical means to address the physical effects of coastal erosion. And Buller District Council with a rate paying base of only a few thousand people would struggle to justify expensive coastal works that might be good for only 15-30 years.

These problems mean that more substantive measures are likely to be needed, which might be politically unpopular, but socially and economically necessary. They might not be achieved with coastal protection works or stop banks on rivers, but by land zone changes that acknowledge the unsuitability of certain lands for building on. These will be met with challenges by land owners and interest groups, possibly in court and certainly through submissions when the documents are open for public input.

It is not just impacts on living that climate change will have. Job security in seasonal jobs might be brought into question. Industries such as skiing may find themselves dealing with shorter and more unpredictable seasons, where most of the snow that falls in a season might land in a single event or come as a whole lot of small events, none of which really support skiers. The same weather will raise questions about security of electricity generation when the hydro electric power storage lakes run low, as the replenishing moisture that falls as snow during winter also falls as rain during the summer and supplies Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki, Ohau, Manapouri and Te Anau.

Planning for these economic uncertainties is something that Government ministers have acknowledged needs to happen. However no clear blue print for tackling them appears to exist at this time. The rhetoric remains largely that. Meanwhile the time keeps moving forward and any certain damage we are causing becomes more and more likely to be compounded by our delays, our politics, our reluctance to be brave and make the next move.