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Community Group Speaker: Sonny Whitelaw

BRaid - Braided River Aid

Sonny Whitelaw has a background in coastal geomorphology and climate change, and has worked on environmental management projects in Vanuatu, Australia, and New Zealand. She was the joint winner (with Lincoln University, DOC, and Hurunui College) of the 2014 Supreme Green-Ribbon Award for the Nina Valley Ecoblitz. The author of several novels, in 2014 she collaborated with over 100 children to produce the 220-page book Celebrating Biodiversity in the Hurunui District. Sonny has managed BRaid, a charitable trust and networking group advocating for braided rivers, since 2015.

Mixed Messages: A Braided Rivers Community Engagement Problem

Wed 2:30 pm

Braided rivers are some of the most biologically productive and rare ecosystems on Earth. For over a century we have actively destroyed them and their life-supporting ecosystem services. We’ve forced their dynamically shifting waterways into ever-narrowing static spaces confined by stopbanks. We’ve filled and drained their wetlands, bulldozed their ephemeral drylands, and converted them to agriculture and forestry or buried them beneath the asphalt and concrete foundations of towns and cities. And we’re still doing it because the RMA doesn’t recognise them as ecosystems; so what’s left is afforded virtually no protection.

But climate change is turbo-charging the hydrology cycle, enabling braided rivers to reclaim their braidplains—along with farms and towns and critical infrastructure. In 2019, NIWA calculated that the level of exposure of elements at risk within Canterbury’s flood hazard area alone, is $40 billion. Yet policy makers and river managers are still sending mixed messages; that flood protection, environmental, cultural, and recreational values are all priorities, and all can be realised. Trying to placate everyone means we’re not being honest with anyone. We need to change the narrative; be honest with communities about the need to make unpalatable choices—before the rivers take those choices from us.