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Beginning to Understand Climate Change in the Kaipara Catchment | CLIMAS


Beginning to Understand Climate Change in the Kaipara Catchment

Thursday, September 14, 2017

I’ve tagged along on environmental monitoring patrols, ridden in logging trucks with forestry workers, played cow wrangler on a dairy farm, photographed coastal erosion from the back of a four wheel drive that smelled of turkeys, and attended a conference on the wellbeing of eels. I’ve had conversations on boats and beaches, in fields and farmhouses, by lakes, in rivers, cars and marae (meeting houses). This is what happens when an anthropologist is on the case.

Figure 1: Here I am pictured on a river monitoring trip with Millan Ruka of Environment River Patrol-Aotearoa. Photo courtesy of D Clarke.

This summer, with the help of a CLIMAS Climate and Society Fellowship, I have had the chance to work with a fantastic group of people in the northern Kaipara Catchment of Aotearoa (New Zealand) to investigate the impacts of climate change on communities in the region. This research project grew out of conversations that were initiated in June 2016 between myself and the Integrated Kaipara Harbour Management Group (the IKHMG). The IKHMG is a Māori led, multi-stakeholder group working toward the restoration and collaborative, holistic management of the Kaipara Harbour and Catchment, that encompasses 640,000 hectares in the Auckland and Northland regions of Aotearoa. Alongside priorities such as regenerating native biodiversity and working towards the inclusion of mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) into management frameworks, the IKHMG is very interested in expanding its understanding of how climate change will affect communities throughout the catchment, and helping them to prepare for and adapt to these impacts. 

Climate change is predicted to bring increasing temperatures, less rainfall, more drought, intense rainfall events, pests and diseases, rising sea levels and ocean acidification to the Kaipara Catchment. Because the natural environment of the Kaipara is an integral part of many people’s identities, livelihoods and wellbeing, climate change has the potential to seriously affect communities in the area.

Figure 2: Map to show the location of the Kaipara Catchment

There is currently a lack of research into the socio-economic, health-based and cultural impacts of climate change in Aotearoa, and attention is generally more focused on higher-level climate change mitigation efforts than grassroots, community-led adaptation. Although a few studies do exist in this space, no such research has been conducted in the Kaipara, meaning that there are few guidelines or models for groups like the IKHMG to turn to. In order to begin to address this research gap I proposed last year to the IKHMG that I structure my Master’s research around climate change impacts and adaptation in the Kaipara Catchment. Since then, I have been working to bring this project to fruition: designing the research questions and protocols in collaboration with the IKHMG, drawing upon the expertise of CLIMAS personnel during planning meetings, taking a class in climate science, reading about climate change vulnerability and adaptation, and of course, making funding applications.

Between mid May and the end of July 2017, I conducted fieldwork in the northern part of the Kaipara Catchment. The research sought to assess community members’ understandings of climate change, their perceptions about how climate change may affect their lives, what they feel should be done to address these effects, and whether any opportunities are associated with impacts or adaptation efforts. Drawing on the invaluable experience that I have gained through working as a Research Associate with the University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, I engaged in many hours of structured observations, held 34 semi-structured interviews, and facilitated a community hui (interactive meeting) on climate change. These activities allowed me to gather information from a total of 76 people in the Kaipara. Because this research is, at its heart, about and for Kaipara communities, I made a point of inviting feedback on research questions, directions and outputs from both the IKHMG and community members with whom I spoke.

Figure 3: Participants at the Climate Change hui, held at the Otamatea Marae in June 2017.

Although I am only in the early stages of analyzing the data I gathered over the summer, I would like to briefly share some of the larger themes that have emerged.

In the Kaipara Catchment, many community members have concerns over issues such as freshwater and marine contamination, the decline of native biodiversity through land use change and pests and diseases, rural depopulation, lack of employment opportunities and financial security, and the loss of local knowledge systems, which have already placed pressure on community wellbeing. While climate change may not be at the forefront of many people’s minds, community members have noticed changes in weather patterns and environmental conditions, and for many, future climate change will interact with the issues mentioned above. In the Kaipara Catchment, the impacts of climate change will not happen in a vacuum; they will play out against a background of ongoing socio-political, historical, and environmental processes. 

My current understanding is that climate change will ultimately place further stress on community wellbeing, whether from the perspective of physical, mental and spiritual health, economic security, or socio-cultural identity.

To take just one example, many community members have concerns over the quality and abundance of kaimoana (seafood) such as shellfish in the Kaipara Harbour and coastal waters. These concerns are believed to be related to contamination of freshwater systems from colonial land use change, intensive agriculture, forestry, and sand extraction operations, and restriction of access due to private land ownership, overfishing and quota allocation. In recent years, worries over access to shellfish have intensified with higher than normal summer temperatures and increasing coastal erosion from sea level rise causing declining abundance and quality, and flooding of low lying roads making travel to shellfish beds difficult. In the future, more storms may lead to increasing contamination of shellfish with pollutants from higher in the Catchment, warmer temperatures may intensify the risk from pests and diseases, and ocean acidification may add further complications for shellfish survival.

Shellfish are an important resource for many coastal communities around the Kaipara. Many community members live in rural areas, where access to food stores, employment opportunities, and even unemployment benefits are restricted, meaning that shellfish is a key source of protein in the diet. The ability to share shellfish within the community, at hui, and with visiting whānau (family) and friends is also an important part of Māori culture, protocol, identity and knowledge systems that is already under strain. In addition, some community members’ livelihoods depend on small and larger scale aquaculture ventures. Climate change, then, may magnify existing concerns over wellbeing that are related to food security and physical health, the erosion of cultural identity, knowledge systems and protocol, and economic prosperity.


Figure 4: Sedimentation in the Kaipara Harbour is one of the ongoing threats to shellfish health that may interact with future climate change.

Figure 5: Coastal erosion presents another challenge to shellfish health in the Kaipara Harbour. Photo courtesy of Maree Jones.

Another suite of impacts relate to intensification of existing pressures on mental health and financial wellbeing. For example, many farm owners and workers in the Catchment already face challenges with isolation, stress, and a lack of financial security and independence. These may be increased with more droughts, floods, heavy rainfall events and pests and diseases in the future, as a result of needing to increase spending on infrastructure and farm resources, and potential loss of stock, crops, and employment.

Understanding the ways in which climate change will interact with existing processes and issues in the Kaipara is key in developing meaningful pathways to adaptation. Many people with whom I spoke emphasized that working to adapt to the impacts of climate change presents opportunities to address a wider network of issues – such as freshwater and Habour health, economic security, and lack of community representation in decision making – which are deeply intertwined with, and often at the heart of, the impacts that communities will experience. Successfully adapting to climate change in the Kaipara will involve engaging with these processes, to create environments and communities that can withstand the additional pressures that climate change may place on them.

Many interviewees see Catchment-level restoration as a key component in building the capacity to successfully respond to climate change impacts, such as the shellfish example discussed above. This will need to take place at a variety of levels and include a diversity of voices. Community, marae or school-level freshwater monitoring and environmental education programs, for example, may combine with collaborative ventures between communities, government and the dairy or forestry industry to encourage or legislate for riparian planting, exclusion of stock from waterways, and trapping sedimentation run-off. 

Figure 6: Encouraging Catchment restoration through activities such as riparian planting is a key part of working towards climate change adaptation for many community members.

Increasing farmer resilience to climate change is also an important theme that has emerged. Many interviewees suggested that mentoring programs may help farmers to alleviate mental health stress, and build their financial capacity to invest in infrastructure and withstand potential losses, while collaborative research and networking can assist farmers to experiment with new crops, stock, or techniques that stand up to changing climatic conditions.

Figure 7: Helping farmers build capacity to respond successfully to events like floods and droughts is another priority for communities in the Kaipara Catchment.

It has been heartening to witness the level of engagement of the IKHMG and other community members in this research project. Everyone that I have spoken to has been very generous with their time and knowledge, and I have been afforded some truly unique experiences by some of my interviewees. The research has even been featured in two local newspapers. You can read the stories here:,

Over the coming months, I will be working to write up my Master’s thesis, and produce a summary document for the IKHMG that will outline the main findings of the research. This document will be used by the IKHMG to help prepare communities for future climate change, by supporting adaptation measures. Although I have lived and breathed this research project for the past three months, I feel that I have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the complexities of climate change impacts and adaptation. In the coming months, I will be developing my PhD dissertation research proposal to continue working on climate change in the Kaipara in partnership with the IKHMG.

Figure8:  Beautiful Pouto Peninsula in the Kaipara Harbour

I am very grateful to CLIMAS, the Social and Behavioral Research Institute, the Graduate and Professional Student Council and the IKHMG for supporting this research. I would like to say a very special thanks to Willie Wright and Jane Worthington of the IKHMG, Shaun Awatere of Manaaki Whenua, Millan Ruka of Environment River Patrol-Aotearoa, and Dylan Clarke of Auckland Council for all their help, guidance and support along the way. Kaipara Ora!

You can read about the work of the IKHMG here: