The Waitaki district's resilience

Doomsayers' predictions about the Waitaki district's future have it wrong - at least for now.

The population of the area steadily declined through the censuses of 1986, 1991, 1996 and 2001.

As North Otago suffered the drain of rural and small-town depopulation common of much of New Zealand and the Western world, numbers in the district came close to slipping below 20,000. The trend was ominous because downward spirals feed into themselves.

Physical infrastructure, as well as social, cultural and sporting strength, became ever more difficult to maintain.

By 2006, the population decline had reversed and numbers edged up.

While the census this year was cancelled after the Christchurch earthquakes, statisticians say there has been another small increase, bringing the tally this year to 21,217.

A further small rise is predicted over the next five years, and then a levelling and slide to 2036 when the projected figure is again just above 20,000. Although all is far from rosy, the figures are well above what was widely predicted 10 and 20 years ago.

Macraes Mine was one of the early bright spots, helping Palmerston and the region go against the declining trend through the 1990s - and continuing to do so. By far the biggest change, however, has been the interlinked advent of more extensive irrigation and dairying.

New families have come into the district with all the consequential downstream service, education and other impacts.

Dairy farmers' incomes have been high and North Otago free from the worst of the dire effects of periodic droughts.

Add in the recent surge in sheep meat prices, and North Otago's economy is much stronger than it was.

It is also more than ever dependent on agriculture and agricultural servicing.

Little wonder, therefore, that many in the district strongly favour the prospect of a cement works.

Once fully established, it would employ 120, with another 180 jobs downstream, highly significant in a district the size of Waitaki.

There is also guarded optimism the infant wine industry in the Waitaki Valley will grow, bringing more jobs and more tourists.

The most disconcerting information in the report presented to the Waitaki District Council last week is the rise in the proportion of older residents. While Waitaki has for many years had large numbers of elderly - Oamaru and Timaru were also popular retirement centres a generation or two ago - the report sees the proportion of those aged 60 or more rising from 22.2% to a staggering 40.8% by 2031.

Statistics Department information has the district in 2026 as New Zealand's oldest, with a median age of 56.

This brings several challenges, not least the fact that many elderly will be on low incomes.

While the number of households (and therefore more ratepayers) is expected to rise even as the population falters, it will become harder for older, poorer residents in a large, sparsely settled area to maintain the quality of its roading network, other essential services and the features that add cultural and social value to communities.

Despite some migration to smaller centres for lifestyle - and sometimes cost - reasons, the dominant national and international trends have been to bigger cities and warmer climates.

Despite the internet enabling workers and some businesses to be spread far and wide, new technology has, overall, encouraged centralisation and the loss of government, banking and other jobs in the regions.

Nevertheless, the future is notoriously hard to predict in the medium term, let alone many years out, as evidenced by the misplaced pessimism of forecasters in the past.

Trends in society do change and tides could well turn Waitaki's way.

Given the dark clouds over the world economics, who knows what lies ahead? Our current models, lifestyles and modes of living might change dramatically with all types of unforeseen impacts.

In the meantime, the Waitaki district has demonstrated resilience.

And, whatever happens, North Otago is underpinned by and holds its own in the natural beauty of its seaside spots, the charms of Oamaru, the attractiveness and productivity of rolling farmland and the grandeur of the Waitaki Valley itself.

It is reasonably positioned to absorb and adapt to changing circumstances.


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