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orange and yellow backgrond and a picture of a street with orange signs and a barbecue on the footpath
A South Dunedin Future event aimed at informing the community about water risk (Image: Shanti Mathias, additional design by Archi Banal)

SocietyOctober 5, 2023

What do you do when flooding is inevitable?

orange and yellow backgrond and a picture of a street with orange signs and a barbecue on the footpath
A South Dunedin Future event aimed at informing the community about water risk (Image: Shanti Mathias, additional design by Archi Banal)

South Dunedin is one of the parts of Aotearoa most vulnerable to climate change. As the community asks hard questions about how to adapt, it’s a preview of difficult conversations that will need to happen across the motu. 

From above, South Dunedin is flat, like the palm of a hand. Houses and shops are bracketed by the curves of the harbour, glittering in the spring sunshine. Beyond a line of sand dunes, the St Kilda and St Clair beaches, dots of surfers in the lacy froth. Where there isn’t water, the suburb is surrounded by hills. 

When you’re actually walking through the area, it’s more mundane. The main shop area includes a WINZ office, payday loan storefronts, vape shops, along with supermarkets, a temporary library and the office of three local Labour candidates. Its flatness makes it appealing to older people and disabled people. It’s a relatively deprived and diverse area of Dunedin, with lots of social housing and renters; an affordable place to live, with direct bus routes into the Dunedin CBD. In most ways, this area is an ordinary suburb, schools and supermarkets, beaches and bike lanes, trucks and tarmac. The only problem is the water.

a blue sky and a road stretching to the ocean
Looking towards flat South Dunedin from one of Dunedin’s hill suburbs (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Water rising from the ground and falling from the sky 

“We have rising groundwater as the sea comes in. We have sea level rise and associated erosion. And we know that with the atmosphere warming up, we’re going to get more frequent and severe weather events. So the challenge with water is that we have it coming from all angles,” says Jonathan Rowe. It’s an overcast day in South Dunedin, and the programme manager of South Dunedin Future is explaining why this suburb is the site of urgent questions about what climate change adaptation should look like, and how communities can stay involved. 

South Dunedin Future is a collaboration, jointly funded by the Otago Regional Council and Dunedin City Council, to make a plan for how this area can adapt to the rising waters. Scientific work to understand what could happen and which parts of the area will be most affected is ongoing, as are applications for funding from central government. 

The current priority, however, is community consultation – which is why Rowe and various members of his team are standing on South Dunedin’s King Edward Street on a chilly Saturday with informational signs clipped to the temporary fencing around the construction site for a new library. The scent of sizzling sausages is drifting from a barbecue set up on the footpath, and passersby are being offered yellow stickers to place on a list of things they care about in exchange for the bread-wrapped meat. 

“Climate change is happening, it’s really bad,” says John, an older man, reading the signs. “I’ve been here when it’s flooded before, and I hope I don’t experience it again in my lifetime.” 

“You can’t push the sea back,” agrees Leslie. She doesn’t live in the neighbourhood, but owns a house here, and is concerned that none of the options the plan is presenting address how landlords can protect themselves from financial loss when the water rolls in. 

blue sky and buildings on the main drag of South Dunedin
South Dunedin, in non-flood conditions (Image: Shanti Mathias)

South Dunedin residents got a glimpse of what might be in store in 2015, when flooding swept through the area. Streets were knee-high in water, and the high groundwater meant that it didn’t absorb well into the ground. Much of South Dunedin is impermeable, roofs and roads, so the water can’t absorb into the land: instead, the flat suburb surrounded by hills acts like a bowl when it rains. “There’s no natural outflow for water,” Rowe explains, who has taken a break from the barbecue to talk to me but still wearing his “South D-Licious” apron. “We’re 100% dependent on the built environment.” 

What is happening in South Dunedin is also happening around the country: with much of Aotearoa’s population living near the coast, many communities are at risk from sea level rise, as this data visualisation from Stuff shows. 

people talking to a man in a black jacket and a man in a blue jacket with their backs to the camera
Mayor Jules Radich and South Dunedin Future coordinator Jonathan Rowe talk to people at a community event (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Planning needs to happen before the next flood

In South Dunedin, 2015 flood helped to cement the urgency of change in locals’ minds; John talks about the importance of keeping mudtanks clear to help manage the water. But that was eight years ago, and the streets still haven’t gone under again. “All that stuff you heard about how South Dunedin was doomed is over the top,” says John determinedly. 

But just because more major flooding hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean that things aren’t changing. It might start with permanently squelchy backyards or rain that takes longer to disappear from the street’s surface than usual. That’s part of the challenge for Rowe and others working on the South Dunedin project: how do you keep the community engaged with climate change on all the days where it isn’t obviously happening? 

“We know that [the flooding] has had a lasting effect – every time it rains, people worry,” Rowe says. They’re raising community attention with pamphlets dropped to every South Dunedin letterbox too, and have a newsletter rather morbidly called the Lowdown. “The bigger question is, what do we do with that? How do we get a good read on what the community actually wants?” 

a man in a blue fleece shirt at a barbecue with a apron that says "south d-licious"
Jonathan Rowe mans the barbecue at the community consultation event (Image: Shanti Mathias)

For public officials like Rowe, these are some of the hardest questions about how to respond to the climate crisis. Everyone’s preferred option would be, of course, that it’s not happening at all, and he emphasises that mitigation – reducing and absorbing emissions – still matters. “In some ways mitigation is global. An emission here is the same as an emission anywhere.” But understanding how the inevitable heavier rainfall and sea level rise combines with specific social and geographical factors is much more complex. “Adaptation is much more localised: the circumstances facing South D, the economic fabric and community and environment are all unique,” Rowe says. 

No matter what the community wants, it’s important that action starts now, says Jules Radich, Dunedin’s mayor, who has also come down for the morning. The council is about to vote for a city-wide Zero Carbon plan – it passes two days after we speak – but Radich gestures to the construction site that is meant to be a library. “We’re not four years late [with the South Dunedin plan], we’re four years late with delivery,” he says. There’s been recent drama on the city council, involving Radich’s handling of a community board chair who racially abused a non-white staff member at a hotel and led the deputy mayor to resign. “I don’t think that impacts the council’s ability to deliver,” Radich says, not commenting further. 

an older white man with slightly mussed dark hair and a black jacket that says Dunedin
Jules Radich is keen for action to happen, and less keen to talk about turbulence at Dunedin City Council (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Funding is a constraint. Radich is supportive of a bid from the council to get money from Treasury to start buying houses and land in the area. “It’s far better for the government to invest a relatively small amount of money over a period of years to build resilience rather than getting to the endpoint where there’s a huge calamity and they have to put in a huge amount of money in order to repair damage,” he says. “It’s been a huge investment from our side.” 

Rowe explains the proposal in more depth. “If you start buying land now, you can implement the answers before you know what they are.” A house that might soon be uninsurable could be the site for a pump; a block of houses could be the beginnings of a wetland, using natural solutions to absorb water. Or a storefront might be fine for another 30 years, providing rent that can fund the planting of water-resilient vegetation and supporting people who need to move – not a managed retreat where people being forced to move, but instead a way to potentially move assets away from land that is becoming less attractive to buy. This is language that people understand, Rowe points out: New Zealanders simply love to talk about the buying, selling and renting of property.

Climate change adaptation costs. Who should pay the bill?

Two hundred years ago, this street in South Dunedin was coastal wetland that was filled in as the city grew. Māori used it as mahingakai, a place to gather food. After Europeans arrived, during the gold rush, the flat space started to look like an economic opportunity, and the wetland was slowly filled in: used as market gardens, then housing. The way the land was turned from wetland to suburb has made it exceptionally vulnerable to the conditions of a changed climate – but that’s not the fault of the people who live here now. Since action is essential, who should be responsible? 

james shaw, an older man with small glasses and dark jeans with a blazer, talking to a man in a blue shirt, a woman in a green coat, and standing in front of signs about climate change in south dunedin
James Shaw talks to South Dunedin locals and council staff involved with the adaptation project (Image: Shanti Mathias)

“At the moment we don’t have a good legal framework for climate change adaptation – there’s no one entity that is responsible,” says James Shaw, emphatically, pausing as a grinding motorbike goes past. It makes sense for the current climate change minister to show up at a community adaptation event, during an election campaign where his party is pushing the idea that voting Green and voting for climate action are one and the same. The Green Party is specifically promoting policy for using nature, rather than human technology to adapt to climate change and promising a $750m fund to protect urban areas from flooding. 

Shaw refers to the proposed Climate Adaptation Act, a piece of legislation to accompany RMA reforms which local government and lawyers are supportive of. “It will assign responsibility around central government, local government, insurance companies and the property owners themselves.” Without clear delineation, Shaw says “progress is hard and there’s a lot of conflict.” 

“It’s not necessarily that the community here is super high emission producing,” says Rowe, agreeing that questions of responsibility can be gnarly. “There’s lots of questions about moral responsibility and just transition – we want to land in a sweet spot, an approach that is fair, where there are some winners and losers. We’re not going to get it perfect.” Part of community consultation is hearing, over and over again, that action needs to start now. “There’s a sense of not wanting to overconsult, to get on and do something.”

“It’s all too slow, it’s too easy to push things back,” agrees Brian, a local who has come with his wife to the event. She and several other older women who are local Green supporters have come to see James Shaw. One solution Brian likes is returning some of the South Dunedin land to market gardens, creating local food networks while also replacing concrete and houses with land that can absorb water. 

Perhaps the group is self-selecting: Leslie, the woman who was concerned about landlords’ responses to climate change, placed her yellow stickers and disappeared. A rushed parent on the way to a birthday party said she couldn’t stop to consider the plans for climate adaptation. That said, the people reading the signs at the South Dunedin Future event seem to agree that climate change action was important – even if some are worried about redstickering, others interested in wetland regeneration and others want to prioritise pipe and infrastructure maintenance. 

people look at sights with yellow stickers next to text on orange boards
South Dunedin residents are invited to place stickers next to the options that matter to them (Image: Shanti Mathias)

“In my experience, this is one of the best case studies to engage a community in an adaptation conversation,” Shaw says. “It’s always cheaper to do prevention rather than recovery – if we can be proactive and reduce risk, we save people’s lives and livelihoods.” He takes a photo with the mayor and some locals, then leaves for his next campaign event. 

Rowe, who worked in Shaw’s climate change ministerial office before moving to Dunedin, grins. “It’s not every day that the climate change minister shows up to your event!” But while the outcome of the election may affect South Dunedin Future’s funding, he’s focused on the present. There are aspects of climate change that are causes for despair, but he’s hopeful for South Dunedin. 

“We can make South D safer in terms of flooding, but we can do lots of really cool things while we do it – more parks, more trees, better housing, better infrastructure, better transport.” 

Perhaps the strongest clue to how South Dunedin might cope with the water that is coming  isn’t just in the forecasts of scientists, but in some of the other local initiatives that indicate how much this community wants to stick together. Across the road from the new library site is a studio for disabled artists, there are signs for the street festival hosted by the local community network and initiatives like The Bowling Club offer affordable kai and a space for people to come together. 

“These communities have deep roots and deep connections to place,” Rowe says. The project has heard, again and again, that people want to stay. “They might have limited economic means, but that doesn’t mean they are less able to deal with these challenges.” Yes, the waters are rising – but by acting now, South Dunedin can be ready.

Keep going!