Forests Ontario

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Nature-based Solutions for Reducing Flood Risk

Posted: September 10, 2019

Spring flooding in the Ottawa Valley in 2019

It is time to wake up to some harsh realities.  Climate change is here and we are experiencing its wrath in many ways, including drought, heat-waves, fires and, most acutely, extreme flood events. The agony of loss has been captured many times over in the media coverage of this year’s floods in Ottawa, Gatineau, Bracebridge and elsewhere across the country and globe. As many experts have predicted, this is only the beginning – it will get worse.

Yes, we do need to address climate change in terms of reducing our emissions. However, more urgently, we must adapt. It is not an option. To be fair, this need has been recognized both provincially in our “Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” and federally, but meaningful actions have been woefully inadequate.

There is much that can be done to help “de-risk” communities. The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, headed by Dr. Blair Feltmate, has taken a very impressive lead on this file, promoting numerous practical risk-reducing actions that homeowners can take to protect their properties from flood damage. The Intact Centre has also undertaken some impressive work with Ducks Unlimited Canada and others, showcasing the benefits of maintaining and enhancing wetlands and other natural systems to attenuate flood risks. Such efforts supplement gray infrastructure, like storm drains, swales and flood control structures. We require a combination of both natural and engineered infrastructure in the face of extreme weather events.

Over the past century, Southern Ontario has lost more than 70 per cent of its wetlands and forests. These natural systems would be able to inherently absorb the waters from extreme storm events, significantly attenuating downstream flooding and damage.  We are now beginning to experience the direct effects of decades of critical ecosystem reduction: increased flood damage exacerbated by climate change (not to mention the associated effects on water quality, wildlife and our health and safety). The pendulum of habitat loss has swung too far – for nature, and for ourselves.

We need more forests, wetlands and grasslands, not less. And we need to be strategic, targeting marginal lands and areas that are most flood-prone and where historically we had ample natural cover.

Environment Canada’s publication on “How Much Habitat Is Enough?” suggests that 50 per cent forest cover or more on a watershed scale is a low risk scenario for forest-dependent wildlife, stable water flows and healthy aquatic systems. Southern Ontario has an average of 26 per cent forest cover; cover in Essex County is perilously low, at five per cent. We are in a high-risk situation.

Unfortunately, the provincial government cut funding for the 50 Million Tree Program at a time when it is clear that we need it most. Granted, this decision was made with the good intention of reducing government spending to address an acute deficit problem.  While that too is important, we must look at the big picture. What little savings the government has achieved in cutting this program will pale in comparison to the cost of future damage from floods and other events. Further, this cut also kills jobs in the forest sector.

We risk sliding backwards at a time when we should be surging forward. Other countries such as China, India and New Zealand are investing heavily in nature-based solutions to climate change impacts – most notably forest restoration. Canada should be doing the same.

A nature-based approach is a win for Canadians: our health and well-being, and our resilience as communities. It is also a win for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and a win for our native plants and wildlife.

We are entering the ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration,’ which offers unparalleled opportunities for addressing climate change, biodiversity and job creation. We know what needs to be done. What we now need is the wisdom, political will and public support to act. Our future health, prosperity and resilience depends upon it.


Steve Hounsell is chair of the board of Forests Ontario and chair of the board of the Ontario Biodiversity Council.