By Pauline Kerr
Watching and reading about the devastation in British Columbia has done a lot more than elicit sympathy for the victims.
It has raised questions about climate change, the adequacy of Canada’s infrastructure, and whether we can count on being able to control rivers, lakes and streams so we can build wherever we want.
Many people noted with surprise that flood-devastated Abbotsford sits where there used to be a lake. It was drained in the 1920s to control flooding and create farmland for settlers. When the area got hit with days of torrential rainfall – a volume of water that exceeded the capacity of pumps and drainage channels – where did people think the water was going to end up?
It brings to mind a member of the geography department at the University of Western Ontario from a couple of generations ago. During spring flooding, he would pace along the water’s edge where university buildings were in jeopardy, announcing with grim satisfaction, “You shall not build on the flood plain; it is the river’s territory!”
Every time there is a huge storm, water tries to reclaim its territory. Global climate change is simply hastening the process.
The problem is that flood plains, river deltas and lake basins are attractive places for human settlement. From ancient times, that was where the richest diversity of wildlife and plants could be found, and where transportation was easiest.
We still like to build near water. The closer to the lakeshore, the higher the price. Confirmation is as close as real estate listings in this paper. Every now and then a storm damages property and maybe even takes lives; within a generation, people are rebuilding on the same land with the insurance money.
Modern technology has given us the ability to create lakes in the middle of deserts, divert substantial rivers hundreds of miles to irrigate crops or create hydroelectric power, claim hundreds of acres of land from the sea and drain so many wetlands that hundreds of species of wildlife are disappearing.
We have tamed the rivers that once flowed freely through this part of the world, and despite occasional reminders about the power of water, we live in relative safety. But at what cost?
The facts are, infrastructure to control water is expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain, and memories are short. There have been many cases in recent years of warnings gone unheeded about needed repairs to dams and dikes. Such work tends to get batted back and forth between various levels of government for years as budgets get cut, projects postponed and plans deferred. And then the “big one” hits and half a city ends up underwater.
The ancient Egyptians lived in peace with the natural flooding of the Nile, building their homes beyond the reach of the water and growing bountiful crops on the rich soil left behind. We do things differently, but the recent disasters on both coasts are making us question how much longer our way will work.
Climate change is here; those once-in-a hundred-year storms are happening every decade or so. Rainfall and drought cycles are more erratic. We wonder when insurance companies will stop paying out huge sums for people to rebuild in hazardous locations.
The infrastructure our predecessors built almost a century ago to funnel streams under roads and off city streets was never designed to handle the sudden high-volume rain events that have become the norm.
The time has come to start thinking in terms of sustainability – stop messing with wetlands and let waterways remain in their natural state wherever possible, and where it is not, shore up dikes and other protections to account for more severe weather. It might also mean telling people to rebuild their dream home on higher ground and adding red tape, not removing it, when it comes to building roads and other infrastructure near rivers and lakes. And it means paying attention to flood warnings.
You were right, Mr. Packer; the flood plain belongs to the river.