International
Paekākāriki seawall - Kāpiti Coast District Council Kapiti Coast District Council

New Zealand: The growing cost of holding back the tides, or not

In Kapiti, the council has set aside millions of dollars to fix a sea wall damaged by erosion but has made it clear that private property owners will likely be footing the bill to maintain it in the future. And this will be the new normal, says climate economist Belinda Storey.

“We’re going to reach a point where it’s going to be very hard to continue to repair sea walls.

“So, I think it’s a good decision to be making a signal that in the future, those costs are going to be shared between the public and the private.”

Sea walls are expensive to build, and even more expensive to maintain in the long run, Storey says.

Insurers are well aware of the risk faced by some coastal regions and are already signalling that in pricing, or retreating from insurance altogether, she says.

“They understand this risk, and they have understood this risk for a number of decades. But in a sense, the public hasn’t caught up, they’re not coming to terms with those risks.”

And where insurers are putting up premiums, expect more of the same, she says.

“You’ve got insurers saying that we’re going to double or triple insurance premiums. The key thing is that they’re sending the signals, but this isn’t the last word, those increases are not one offs, they’re going to keep going up in those risky locations.”

Next comes insurer retreat, she says.

“There are going to be locations that will find it very difficult to get insurance and that will happen, that’s already happening and it will continue to happen.

“I’ve heard some people say, before you buy a house, you need to know whether the house has got insurance. Well absolutely, but what that implies is that if you can get insurance at the time you buy, you going to be able to keep getting insurance.” There are going to be places that have insurance now and could lose it over the next few years, she says.

Risk areas in New Zealand include parts of Lower Hutt.

“We’re a coastal nation and we also get quite a lot of rain. We have hazards coming from the sea, and hazards coming from rain coming off the hills,” she says.

Once insurers retreat, house prices – although not immediately – drop, she says. “On the east coast of the US, there are locations where insurers have pulled out completely, and the risk is continuing to escalate. You’re experiencing these significant drop offs in prices of houses.”

Over ten years prices can halve in such areas, she says. Holding back the tide is not an option, despite Miami’s attempt to do just that. “They’re putting in these incredibly expensive pumps to pump out the water, they’re lifting the streets, there’s all those sorts of things but the key point is, it’s built on a great big sponge of limestone, so it’s porous. It’s only a matter of time before Miami properties are going to be significantly impacted.”

And for New Zealand’s coast dwellers, do your research, she says.

“I think it’s important to get as educated as you can and the best place to start from that is your local council understand what their plans are, what is it they are undertaking and think about your values and the values that you want for your community.”

If your house is more than just a financial asset to you and you love the area, that may change the way you think, she says.

“But those are the things that you’ve got to start thinking about; what values are most important to you. And if it is financial, then you need assume that the impact of climate change is going to be incorporated into coastal property eventually.”

Read Wellington Scoop article