Study identifies Indigenous communities that are hotspots for flooding risk

·6 min read

A recent study has identified Indigenous communities that are “hot spots” for flood risk in Canada, which can help senior levels of government shape and prioritize flood management strategies in line with social equity and environmental justice.

A total of 40 risk hot spots were identified in the University of Waterloo study among 360 Indigenous reserves, with the highest number of hot spots located in B.C. at 13 and in Ontario with 10.

The top five flood risk hot spots in the country are the Shamattawa First Nation reserve in northern Manitoba, Pigeon Lake reserve 138A (shared by four nations) in Alberta, the Whycocomagh reserve in Nova Scotia, the Ekuanitshit-Mingan Innu reserve in northern Quebec and the Cowichan Tribes reserves on Vancouver Island, B.C.

The study is unique because in addition to evaluating the likelihood of flooding and potential property and infrastructure damage, it also factors in a community’s social vulnerability, or its capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from a flood, said co-author Jason Thistlethwaite.

Traditionally, risk planning for floods tends to focus on areas with concentrated structural and economic assets, often cities or industrial settings, he said.

However, the capacity of these areas to prevent or recover from flooding is likely higher, as bigger cities or industrial areas have more resources and capacity to apply for funding and develop and implement response plans.

Employing social vulnerability measurements better determines where the highest risk areas are, along with which people will be impacted most, said Thistlethwaite, a flood-risk expert and associate professor at the University of Waterloo.

“Governments have a responsibility to increase investment in those (Indigenous) communities to try to limit the exposure and decrease the vulnerability of those populations to flooding and other climate risks.”

To understand a community’s social vulnerability, Thistlethwaite said the study employed an index that weighed 49 different socio-economic variables, including a community’s demographics, household makeup, housing, income and infrastructure and social supports.

The study shows 81 per cent of the 985 Indigenous land reserves in Canada were at risk of flooding with impacts to people or residential properties.

While the threat to residential property is similar between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, once social or environmental inequities come into play, the overall risk is higher for Indigenous communities.

The national study is a preliminary step, and more research has to be done at a local level with the Indigenous communities potentially at risk to “ground truth” the findings, examine flood threat dynamics and create management plans adapted to the specific environment and community priorities, Thistlethwaite said.

For instance, an Indigenous community’s flood protection priorities might also involve environmentally sensitive or culturally important sites that aren’t necessarily near buildings or structures, he said.

Sandbag walls and removable flood barriers surround the big house and homes at Clem Clem — the Cowichan Tribes’ ancient village site at the junction of the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers on central Vancouver Island.

The temporary structures will stay in place to try to prevent any further damage from flooding until after the spring melt swells the rivers, said Chris Jancowski, the Cowichan Tribes’ new emergency planning and response manager.

Clem Clem and other areas on Cowichan reserve lands were flooded twice in January and November this year and in February 2020, said Jancowski.

Much of the reserve is on a floodplain and regularly sees limited, localized flooding, but the severity is increasing with climate change, Jancowski said.

The latest flood on Nov. 15 — a one-in-100-year event that prompted evacuations and a local state of emergency — occurred during the atmospheric river that caused torrential rains and devastating floods across B.C.

Approximately 100 homes on the reserve were evacuated and multiple roads were closed due to high water or landslides after the area got 150 millimetres of rain over a two-day period.

Given both B.C. and local governments declared states of emergency, Cowichan Tribes were able to secure immediate resources from the provincial and federal governments to start relief work and prepare for additional rainstorms, Jancowski said.

A Canadian Armed Forces response unit arrived on Nov. 27 and teamed up with residents, Cowichan forestry workers and a local contractor to put temporary flood measures in place at Clem Clem and other residences at risk, Jancowski said.

However, these structures aren’t a permanent fix and the Cowichan don’t typically have outside resources and bodies to step in and help, he said.

“These protection measures are seasonal,” Jancowski said, adding that between the flooding in early 2020 and the November event, at least 29 homes need to be repaired.

“We’re starting conversations now about what can be done with the support of the provincial and federal governments for recovery and longer-term solutions.”

Following the 2020 flood, the federal government provided $24.2 million in funding to Cowichan Tribes, in November of the same year, to develop a watershed resiliency program that will alleviate flooding in winter and droughts and low water levels for salmon in the summer.

The areas on the reserve typically at risk of flooding were impacted in the November event, but the damage was less severe, thanks to gravel removal and initial natural restoration work along the Cowichan and Koksilah rivers during the summer, said Darryl Tunnicliffe, manager of environment and natural resources, in a news release.

The success and co-operation of the Cowichan flood relief effort in November is a case study for the effectiveness of measures that involve all three levels of government, Jancowski said.

However, the widespread devastation with the recent flooding in B.C. demonstrates the overall mandate of shared responsibility has eroded over time, said Thistlethwaite.

“Very quietly over the last 10 to 15 years, senior levels of government have tried to wash their hands of responsibility for flood management,” he said.

“In B.C. for instance, they downloaded most of the management to local governments, or Indigenous communities, and that is the wrong level of government to be handling these types of risk.”

Jancowski agreed senior levels of government need to also prioritize Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to flooding.

The Cowichan community is landlocked by reserve boundaries, and the floodplain makes up a large portion of the land.

“We have to understand climate change is here for the long game,” he said, adding the Cowichan aim to build capacity and develop proactive measures to protect the community for decades.

“I may put myself out of work, but I hope down the road by improving the river management and by implementing plans for improved infrastructure and homes, hopefully, we’ll eventually reduce the need for flood response.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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