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

The world is rapidly moving towards climate change tipping points. Floods, fires and heat waves strike with increasing ferocity. There is a growing reality, in Canada and elsewhere, that adaptation is urgent and necessary.

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The Red Cross has distributed $27 million in Fiona donations, most of it to Nova Scotia, PEI

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

The thinking, says Federal Emergency Relief Secretary Bill Blair, is that it’s much more cost-effective to address climate-related adaptation measures first, rather than pull the purse strings after a tragedy.

“For every dollar we spend on prevention, on stronger infrastructure, we can save as much as $10 on recovery,” Blair said at a news conference in Prince Edward Island.

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Click to play video: 'More adaptation to climate change needed after storm Fiona: expert'

More adaptation to climate change needed after storm Fiona: expert

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 mapping of floods is also part of the government’s strategy.

One community leading the way in that regard is Peterborough, Ontario, about two hours east of Toronto. Nearly twenty years ago, it was hit hard by floods of epic proportions that any resident old enough to have experienced 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 worked to improve its infrastructure.

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

“It took almost 6,000 hours of work,” said Ian Boland, senior project manager for the watershed, referring to an integrated flood model his city has implemented.

The goal, Boland says, is to map “every sewer, storm runoff, catchment basin, watercourse” and create a model for both predicting and responding to floods no matter where they occur in and around the city.

Advanced flood maps

Sandbags, levees and pumping stations usually come to mind when you think of the community’s response to flooding. But these are mostly reactive measures.

Cities, on the other hand, are increasingly adopting innovative and proactive approaches, born of the fact that climate risks are now there and growing.

Click to play video: 'Heavy rainfall in southern Alberta raises flooding concerns, flashbacks to 2013 disaster'

Heavy rain in southern Alberta raises flooding concerns and flashbacks to 2013 disaster

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

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Peterborough officials have been working with a company called Ecopia AI for the past five years to collect raw data on various surfaces across the city. This includes both impermeable areas such as parking lots and water-absorbing areas such as parks and lawns.

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

It is a more comprehensive approach than the traditional way of simply studying water flows in a river, for example. Thanks to the more advanced mapping, they can generate scenarios and plan accordingly.

But even then there are uncertainties.

The need for adjustment

Planet Earth is fast approaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, an average global temperature that, if exceeded, will have devastating effects on the climate. In fact, there are growing voices that the 1.5°C target will simply not be met given the amount of fossil fuels the world continues to burn.

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Enter the need not only to mitigate climate change – namely to reduce emissions – but also to adapt to the grim realities in the here and now.

The shift towards more adaptation is gaining momentum, including when it comes to flooding.

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

Western University climate adaptation expert Jason Thistlethwaite works closely with Ottawa on the flood management response and was a key contributor to the report. Cities, he says, are often at the forefront of climate risk and point the way forward.

“Municipalities take this very seriously because they are the ones on the front lines. They are the ones who are most physically at risk, yet have the fewest resources to do something about it.”

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

“In the future, we will look at municipalities that are recognized as climate-resilient, and whose property values ​​will increase because people want to live there.”

Solutions needed now

For those affected by these disasters, the money needed to adapt to the growing problem of climate change cannot come fast enough.

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In BC’s Fraser Valley, farmers whose lands were inundated by a series of atmospheric rivers last fall are still awaiting compensation in some cases. This also applies to dairy farmer Philip Graham.

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

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

Click to play video: 'Comprehensive plan needed to prevent future flooding in Fraser Valley'

Extensive plan needed to prevent future flooding in Fraser Valley

Ottawa has promised $5 billion in emergency aid for British Columbia, but that money won’t come overnight. So many flood-prone parts of the province are left with a patchy system of makeshift storm surge barriers known as orphan dikes.

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In other words, the changes can’t come soon enough because no one knows what the next storm or heat will bring.

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And while it may be impossible to “block” a flood like that of Peterborough in 2004 or the floods that ravaged Calgary in 2013, there is a growing sense that more money is needed to cope with the new and increasingly changing climate reality. .

In Peterborough, that stronger offensive line is already taking shape, and better mapping, says Boland, shows that it can be done.

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

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