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Reliable fresh water No.1 priority

Opinion Piece
Clive Bibby

This column is the second in a series examining the vulnerability of a region without a plan to prepare for the worst effects of climate change.

In the absence of such a plan, l feel compelled to stimulate a debate about the consequences of not having one, and to offer constructive suggestions of what a draft copy might look like should our leaders be persuaded that they need to get their act together before it is too late.

I believe there are four items within the council's area of responsibility that need immediate attention, and list them in priority order: Reliable fresh water supplies; Economic development of Northern Tairawhiti; Irrigating the Poverty Bay Flats; Tourism development.

Arguably the No.1 priority for any council planning its defences against climate change is providing access for its constituents to adequate supplies of non-polluted fresh water.

It should be obvious to anyone that fresh water will become, if it isn't already, the most precious commodity related to human survival on the planet. Unfortunately it is also one that we have mercilessly abused, especially in the many parts of the world where it has already become scarce long before the threat of climate change. Yet, surprisingly, it remains one of the few commodities that also offers so much hope, if treated with respect, when included in our defensive plans for the future.

Now let's look more closely at the situation here at home:

Ratepayers may be surprised to know that a large portion of their vital supplies of fresh water is prone to damage and even partial collapse in the event of a significant earthquake.

Some of our fresh water reserves are contained in dams (Mangapoike) that are built on a fault line. Yet the council continues to indicate its future reliance on this type of vulnerable structure, having allocated much of its planned maintenance funding to an upgrade of that facility instead of placing a higher priority on the need to explore other more reliable opportunities while there is still time.

Their other commitment is to the partially-completed Makauri aquifer recharge trial. While l support the work being done to determine if this source will ever be a reliable feature of our fresh water delivery system, we know enough already to accept that it will never be more than a complementary supplier to an irrigated Poverty Bay Flats.

Consequently, we need to investigate other potential water storage sites and the urgency can't be overstated.

We need new, reliable sources of fresh water that are of the quality required to service the needs of both urban and rural communities of the future. Whatever source we decide to hook up to, the fresh water must be available to all citizens living in the Tairawhiti region — not just the precious few who want to own and use it exclusively.

If we get our development proposals right, the demands for fresh water will go through the roof. So where should we concentrate our search?

Those resources and potential sites for new storage facilities are most likely to be identified in the Motu catchment, where the effects of climate change will be less severe than in traditionally reliable areas like the Wharerata hills which house the current jewel in the crown — the Puninga dam. While that facility could provide a partial solution by raising the dam height, because of its location, that option would not be enough on its own to prevent the need for building another large reservoir somewhere else.

Next week's column in this series will be about the importance of accepting Minister Shane Jones's offer to declare the Northern Tairawhiti a special economic zone.