“Before the Flood”: the growing urgency to adapt to the climate crisis

The world is rapidly heading towards climate change tipping points. Floods, fires and heat waves are striking with increasing ferocity. There is, in Canada as elsewhere, a growing reality that adaptation is urgently needed.

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With this growing knowledge, the federal government on Thursday announced a $1.6 billion spending package to help provinces, municipalities and First Nations countries address the effects already unfolding across the country.

The thinking, says Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, is that it’s far more cost-effective to tackle climate-related adaptation measures first, rather than opening the purse strings after the tragedy.

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

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Adaptation measures, he says, include examining “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 leading the way is Peterborough, Ontario, about two hours east of Toronto. Nearly twenty years ago, it was badly affected by floods of epic proportions that any resident old enough to have experienced them can hardly forget.

Residents have described the water as “running buckets, not drips”. Another resident said it was “like Niagara Falls.”

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

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

“It took almost 6,000 man hours,” says Ian Boland, Senior Watershed Project Manager, referring to an integrated flood model his city has undertaken.

The goal, says Boland, is to map “every single sewer, every drain, every single catchment, stream” and build a model to both predict and respond to flood events, no matter where they occur. in and around the city.

Advanced flood mapping

Sandbags, dams and pumping stations are what usually come to mind when thinking about community response to flooding. But these tend to be reactive measures.

On the contrary, cities are increasingly adopting innovative and proactive approaches, born from the fact that climate risk is present and growing.


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This is where data and mapping can play an important role.

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

The high-resolution maps that are generated are then used to create what is called a “plumbing” model of the city. This approach allows planners to create real-time scenarios that show water flowing over an impermeable surface and calculate the 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, for example, in a river. The more advanced mapping allows them to generate scenarios and plan them properly.

But even then, there are uncertainties.

The need for adaptation

Planet Earth is rapidly approaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, an average global temperature which, if exceeded, has devastating climate impacts. Moreover, there are growing rumors that the 1.5C target will simply not be met, given how much fossil fuel the world continues to burn.

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Enter the need to not only mitigate climate change, i.e. reduce emissions, but also to adapt to the harsh realities of the here and now.

The shift towards greater adaptation is starting to take hold, even when it comes to flooding.

Last August, the federal government released 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 key contributor to the report. Cities, he says, are often at the forefront of climate risk and are showing the way forward.

“Municipalities are taking it very seriously because they are the ones who are on the front line. They are the ones who are experiencing the greatest physical risk, yet have the least amount of resources to do anything about it.

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

“Going forward, we will look at municipalities that are recognized to be resilient to climate change and their property values ​​will go up because people will 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 cannot come fast enough.

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In BC’s Fraser Valley, farmers whose land was inundated by a series of atmospheric rivers last fall are, in some cases, still awaiting compensation. This includes rancher Philip Graham.

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“It’s quite frustrating,” he told Global BC, of ​​the uncertainty about 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.”


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Comprehensive plan needed to prevent future flooding in the Fraser Valley


Ottawa has pledged $5 billion in flood relief for British Columbia, but that money won’t come overnight. Thus, many flood-prone parts of the province are left with an erratic system of makeshift flood barriers known as orphaned dikes.

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The changes, in other words, can’t come fast enough, because no one knows what the next storm or heat event will bring.

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And while it may be impossible to “stop” a flood like the one that hit Peterborough in 2004, or the floods that devastated Calgary in 2013, there’s a growing sense that more money is needed to tackle new, ever-changing climate realities. . .

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

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

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