Flooding at Lakeside Park in 2012. Photo: Bob Hall

COLUMN: Donna Macdonald on how cities should prepare for flooding

The old methods that no longer work, and some promising alternatives

By Donna Macdonald

Floods and fires. It’s been a bewildering summer as we tried to figure out what to think about, or worry about, or what to do. Local governments have been overwhelmed by catastrophic events. Most recently, water from above and below has been devastating.

Humans are innately attracted to water. We want to live and work by it, walk along it, skim across its magical surface, swim in its depths. More practically, rivers, lakes and oceans provide important transportation links. And, of course, we need water to simply live.

Water is both a blessing and a powerful force bringing unprecedented flooding, erosion and storm surges. What does that mean for all the development that’s occurred along coastlines and shorelines, from major cities and resorts to extensive slums? And what should local governments be doing?

There are two common responses. One is to build higher walls and thicker dykes. To rely on that, you have to believe you can triumph over the phenomenal power of water and the intensification of storms and floods due to climate change.

The second, less common, response is known as ‘managed retreat.’ It means moving people at risk to higher ground and relocating private and public assets. A 2016 study looked at three coastal mega-cities, Vancouver, Manila and Lagos, and assessed their governments’ plans for managed retreat as part of their climate change adaptation.

You can, I’m sure, imagine the challenges of achieving managed retreat. Vested interests, poverty, high population density, ineffective or complex governance, high property values, legal challenges, and social and financial costs. And, of course, denial that there’s even a problem.

In Lagos, Nigeria, city administrators believe that coastal development is the best response to climate change. They’re building what they hope will be the commercial and financial epicenter of West Africa on reclaimed land poking out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Manila faces multiple threats, from sea level rise to flooding along rivers and lagoons. The city completed a large project that relocated families living within three metres of flood-prone rivers. This community-led project moved people into mid-rise buildings in the city. The international community helped with the $1 billion U.S. cost.

And, then, Vancouver. It’s a bit alarming to look at the familiar map of that city and see its vulnerability. Sea level rise, storm surges, coastal erosion and river flooding are threats, especially along the shores of the Fraser River, False Creek, and the harbour. Those areas encompass very high-value assets.

It won’t be easy to convince someone to give up their fancy new condo-with-a-view on False Creek in exchange for safety in Langley. Or to suggest that the Port of Vancouver or the five-star Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel need to relocate. Still, consideration of this strategy is included in both Vancouver and provincial policy.

But there’s a third way, exemplified by a country that is one-third below sea level and has 900 years’ experience living intimately with water. That would be the Netherlands, who have appointed a special envoy, Henk Ovink, to help the rest of us reduce loss of life and property damage caused by floods.

Recently on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, Ovink talked about the Dutch experience and offered some practical approaches. For example, the Netherlands’ Room for the River project was an extensive attempt to give rivers more room to act like rivers. Natural flooding is allowed by deepening river basins and moving dykes back away from them. It works better than trying to keep water out of homes.

In cities, future planning is critical, but for existing buildings Ovink suggests moving critical infrastructure (like electrical systems) a couple floors up. Accept that flooding will happen, and prepare.

Oh, yes, it all costs lots of money, but Ovink argues the return-on-investment will be substantial. Doing nothing, as the property insurance business knows, is foolish and will be much more expensive.

A similar approach is being tried closer to home. It’s called ‘natural capital assets.’ The town of Gibsons is applying it, for example, to manage rainwater and flooding using natural features (such as ponds, marshes, gullies) instead of bigger pipes and more concrete.

The basic message is: work with your natural assets, not against them. This is not a fight, as Ovink says, it’s a relationship. To make it work, you need to understand your partner.

That’s why it’s good news that the Union of BC Municipalities has just announced funding to help local governments acquire the knowledge they need about flood hazards and the strategies to prepare.

We love water. Now we must learn how to live with it.

Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.

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