Dams, Dikes and Dismay  

The Netherlands represent a case study in flood resilience that Canada would be well-advised to study. 

Devastating flood disaster in the city and farmland after storm. Abbotsford, Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Let’s start with a simple quiz: as the cost of flooding increases globally, are Canadian or Dutch cities more at risk of flooding? 

During another unprecedented storm in November of 2021, a dike failed in Abbotsford, B.C., a case city in our research on resilience and urban development politics. The resulting flood caused mayhem. The federal government claims it has paid $1 billion dollars in recovery costs. Private insurers have paid another $696 million for the event. One estimate pegs the costs of future resilience efforts in the flood-prone Fraser Valley at $9 billion. 

For years prior, water experts had warned about vulnerability in the region until Abbotsford’s “Sumas Prairie,” a drained lakebed, became a lake again. Abbotsford is faced with a climate dilemma: either retreat from some of the most productive farmland in the world or spend billions on upgrades to flood defenses. The city wants to fight water with pumps, dikes, ditches, dams and dredging. But perhaps it’s time to stop fighting water and look at other strategies, like in the Netherlands, where we’re conducting comparison research. 

There are stark differences between Canadian and Dutch strategies for managing flood risk. Canadians do not seem to understand risk. The Dutch have for centuries acknowledged vulnerability which results from inhabiting a low, flat country. 

One strategy is “making room for the river” (RftR), in major flood mitigation projects. An example is downtown in the city of Nijmegen where the River Waal flooded frequently. National, provincial and municipal governments bought risky properties then built a diversion channel, moved dikes and raised flood walls to double the capacity of the river.  

Devastating Flood Natural Disaster in the city and farmland after storm. Abbotsford, Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

At the outset, the plans met strong opposition from landowners and the city. Initial top-down, nation-level decisions were followed by bottom-up multi-actor network governance. We heard about years of tough negotiations (many around kitchen tables) with developers and property owners who fought expropriation. The project is near completion, and it’s astonishing. New public amenities include beaches and parks and a restored waterfront. Lovely new bridges now serve new, resilient developments. Apparently, the people of Nijmegen hated it and now they love it.  

In three years of research on urban development politics and flood resilience we have heard repeatedly about miscommunication, missed communication and a culture of secrecy in government in Canada. Abbotsford has built a communication dike between city officials and the rest of Canada in fear of being held liable for past and future disasters. In our earlier research in the City of Ottawa, we heard of clearly dysfunctional communication between developers, the City and Conservation Authority staff complicated by ambiguity in climate projections, and ham-fisted, top-down regulatory changes imposed by the Province of Ontario. At the national level we heard from senior insurance and housing industry officials about government ministries actively resisting working together. In contrast with the Dutch method, there seems to be little collaboration and no one at the helm here as constitutional boundaries prevent the feds’ meddling in Canadian urban affairs. 

In Canada, changes are pending. Until now, federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements funding restored flooded municipalities to their pre-flood state. We haven’t been trying to “build back better” after big disasters. The feds are currently reviewing the DFAA and it looks like Public Safety Canada will change how it funds flood-resilient infrastructure. That means direct influence in urban spatial development. Public Safety is also creating a public flood portal using updated flood mapping to try to scare the market to higher ground. At the same time, the insurance industry is floating radical changes to overland flood insurance. Rather than increasing premiums across the board, or, worse, redlining properties in flood plains that may expand with increasingly severe weather, the industry is working with the feds on a “high risk flood pool” whereby the industry provides insurance but with exposure backstopped by Canadian taxpayers.  

Dike along a lake in autumn

The sum of these initiatives is a change in how risk is allocated. This is a major difference between Canada and the Netherlands: the Canadian government and insurers are trying to remove risk from the commons (the general tax and/or insurance bucket) and place it on individual high-risk properties. In other words, let the consumer beware. The drivers for these changes are the same in both countries: climate change is causing bigger storms; cities are growing, and more flooded assets means higher recovery costs; urban land for development is ballooning in value; and tensions are escalating between long-range national government responsibilities versus more immediate private sector and municipal priorities. We presume the City of Abbotsford is closely watching Canada’s stormy approach to flood resilience. 

The other difference is that Dutch people have prioritized negotiated solutions that keep them safer, make their cities more livable and save money in the long run. The Canadian strategy still seems reactive, combative, piecemeal, a finger in the dike. Clearly, we need to better coordinate flood resilience. It’s time for Canadians to acknowledge that flooding is a national issue and shift from fighting water — and each other — to negotiating how we live with water in this new, normal, disrupted climate. 

Gary Martin, Ph.D. and Ruth McKay Ph.D. are, respectively, a research associate and associate professor in the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

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