‘Before the flood': The growing urgency of adapting to the climate crisis

WATCH: The need for climate adaptation grows as the planet heats.

The world is rapidly barreling toward climate change tipping points. Floods, fires and heat waves are hitting with growing ferocity. There is, in Canada as elsewhere, a growing reality that adaptation is urgent and necessary.

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With that knowledge growing, on Thursday the federal government announced a $1.6 billion spending package to help provinces, municipalities and First Nations deal with the effects that are already being witnessed across the country.

The thinking, says federal emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair, is that it’s far more cost effective to deal with climate-related adaptation measures first, as opposed to opening the purse strings after tragedy strikes.

“For every dollar we spend on prevention, on stronger infrastructure, we can save as much as ten dollars in recovery,” Blair said at a news conference in Prince Edward Island.

The adaptation measures, he says, include looking at “building codes, where we build, how we build,” as well as efforts “to develop a national flood insurance program” to better inform planning decisions. Better flood mapping is also part of the government’s strategy.

One community that is showing the way in that respect is Peterborough, Ont., about two hours east of Toronto. Nearly twenty years ago, it was severely impacted by floods of epic proportions that any resident old enough to have lived through them can hardly forget.

Residents described the water as “buckets coming down, not drops.” Another resident said it was “like Niagara Falls.”

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More than 150 millimeters of rain fell on the city in less than an hour that day in July 2004. Since the historic event, Peterborough has been working to upgrade its infrastructure.

The city also received federal funding for flood mapping and emergency response through Ottawa’s National Disaster Mitigation Program.

“Close to 6,000 hours of work went into it,” says Senior Watershed Project Manager Ian Boland, referring to an integrated flood model his city has undertaken.

The goal, Boland says, is to map out “every single sewer, storm drain, every single catch basin, water course,” and create a model for both predicting and responding to flood events no matter where they occur in and around the city.

Advanced flood mapping

Sandbags, dikes and pump stations are what usually come to mind when thinking of community flood response. But these tend to be reactive measures.

In contrast, cities are increasingly taking innovative and proactive approaches, born out of the fact that climate risk is here now and growing.

That is where data and mapping can play a big role.

Officials in Peterborough have been working over the past five years with a company called Ecopia AI to collect raw data about various surfaces across the city. This includes impervious areas like parking lots as well as water-absorbent ones like parks and grassy areas.

The high-resolution maps that are generated are then used to create what’s called a “hydraulic” model of the city. This approach allows planners to create real-time scenarios that show water flowing over an impervious surface and to calculate what impact that would have on the rest of the city’s storm management system.

It’s a more comprehensive approach than the traditional way of simply studying water flows in, say, a river. The more advanced mapping allows them to generate scenarios and to adequately plan for them.

But even then, there are uncertainties.

The need for adaptation

Planet Earth is rapidly edging toward 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, an average global temperature that, if crossed, spells devastating climate impacts. What’s more, echoes are growing that the 1.5 C target will simply not be met given how much fossil fuel the world continues to burn.

Enter the need for not just mitigating climate change – namely, cutting emissions – but also adapting to the stark realities in the here and now.

The shift toward more adaptation is starting to pick up steam, including when it comes to flooding.

Last August, the federal government published one of its most comprehensive reports on flood risk in Canada.

Western University climate adaptation expert Jason Thistlethwaite works closely with Ottawa on its flood management response, and was a leading contributor of the report. Cities, he says, are often on the front lines of climate risk, and are showing the way forward.

“Municipalities are taking this very seriously because they’re the ones who are on the front lines. They’re the ones who are suffering from the most physical risk, yet have the least amount of resources to do anything about it.”

There are, he adds, real benefits to taking this work seriously.

“In the future, we’re going to be looking at municipalities who are recognized for being climate resilient, and their property values are going to go up because people are going to want to live there.”

Solutions needed now

For those impacted by these disasters, the money needed to adapt to the growing problem of climate change can’t come fast enough.

In B.C.’s Fraser Valley, farmers whose land was inundated by a series of atmospheric rivers last fall are, in some cases, still waiting for compensation. That includes dairy farmer Philip Graham.

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“It’s pretty frustrating,” he told Global BC, of the uncertainty around compensation. “You do all this paperwork, and you hear on the news, ‘Oh yeah, we’re covering, we’re helping people out, we’re doing all this stuff for everyone.’

“They tell me they haven’t forgotten about me.”

Ottawa has promised $5-billion in flood relief for British Columbia, but that money’s not going to come overnight. So, many flood-prone parts of the province are left with a patchy system of makeshift flood barriers known as orphan dikes.

The changes, in other words, can’t come fast enough, because nobody knows what the next storm or heat event will bring.

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And while it may be impossible to ‘block’ a flood like the one that struck Peterborough in 2004, or the floods that ravaged Calgary in 2013, there is a growing sense that more money is needed to deal with new and ever-evolving climate realities.

In Peterborough, that stronger line of attack is already taking form, and better mapping, Boland says, is showing that it can be done.

“We didn’t want it to be something,” he says, “that just sits on the shelf.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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