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‘Natural infrastructure’ — retain what you have; restore what’s lost

A new report says natural infrastructure can be cheaper than built infrastructure for controlling floods

Saving and carefully managing of wetlands, forests and other working natural landscapes can save Canadians millions in yearly flood damage costs, says a new report supported in part by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

This ‘natural infrastructure’ is also a viable and cost-effective alternative to traditional — and often much more expensive — built flood protection, such as dams and other water control structures, the report says.

Combating Canada’s Rising Flood Costs: Natural Infrastructure is an Underutilized Option looks at the monetary value of planned and managed networks of natural lands such as forests, wetlands and working landscapes, and their flood-mitigation and other environmental benefits.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Waterloo-based Intact Centre on Climate Change partnered with the Canadian insurance sector to release the report.

Canadian insurers point to significant financial losses due to flooding and climate change and extreme weather events, which last year alone saw $1.5 billion forked out to help homeowners and communities cope with their impact.

Manitoba is also now wading into a $950-million class-action lawsuit brought forward by 4,000 residents of four First Nations who lost homes and were forced to evacuate their communities after severe flooding in 2011.

The IISD has been working at ways to quantify and demonstrate how managing natural infrastructure is a solution, said Dimple Roy, director, water policy with the Winnipeg-based think-tank.

“The report demonstrates that natural infrastructure is a viable complement if not alternative to a lot of built infrastructure that’s being thought about today.”

Roy said the idea is not new, “but we’re not yet at a point where we think of investing in this ahead of the much more expensive built infrastructure such as dams or other water-control structures.”

Multiple benefits

This report says natural infrastructure also produces multiple environmental and social benefits, such as cleaner water, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

“It really shows that natural infrastructure can give us the kind of outcomes we’re looking for, particularly in the context of a changing climate,” Roy said.

The report cites four Canadian case studies showing how the economic value and return on investment from natural infrastructure projects outweighs their costs.

Gibsons, B.C. was the first municipality in the country to use the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative to assess and declare its own natural infrastructure as municipal assets and committing to operate and maintain these in the same way as engineered assets such as storm sewers and roads.

Rather than a $3.5-million engineered project to manage storm water, Gibsons obtains the same benefit from spending $30,000 per year maintaining and monitoring a naturally occurring aquifer and surrounding creeks, ditches and wetlands.

Manitoba example

Pelly’s Lake, a 121-hectare wetland area and water restoration project established at Holland, Man. in 2015 is also included in the report. University of Saskatchewan researchers say that for its $125,000 annual operating costs, it returns benefits of $324,550 in flood attenuation, biomass production, carbon offsets and reduced release of phosphorus and nitrogen. Those numbers don’t account for other benefits such as groundwater recharge, drought resiliency, water for irrigation and improved habitat for waterfowl and songbirds.

Given Manitoba still has many wetlands, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be replicated — and the gains amplified — throughout the rest of Manitoba, said Roy.

“Action needs to be taken not only to restore the many defunct wetlands in our province, but also actively manage those that still exist so they are effective to their full capacity and reduce the drain on finances that flood damage brings.”

The study says the general rule-of-thumb approach to start taking is to “retain what you have, restore what you’ve lost and build what you must.”

Monetize benefits

Roy said it’s important to find ways to compensate landowners for ecological benefits such as clean water, and phosphorus recovery and habitat preservation.

“Because society hasn’t valued clean water that’s been a secondary form of stewardship that many are able to do and many are not. The quantification and monetization of these benefits is really core to this.”

The report says new ways of funding natural infrastructure development and management are also needed. Actions recommended include establishing landowner compensation schemes and models for looking at the links between taking risk off the table and long-term savings.

It also recommends that work begin with municipalities, the new Canada Infrastructure Bank and the financial sector to develop and implement new financial instruments to accelerate natural infrastructure investment and implementation.

A Winnipeg forum on Nov. 14 will bring together various federal and provincial government officials, conservation experts and representatives from the banking and insurance sector to talk over how to enable more natural infrastructure. The two main topics will include the existing and new ways to finance and implement it, how it can be delivering desired outcomes, Roy said.

Emerging carbon markets, phosphorus-recovery markets and new interest from sectors such as insurance are all possible new funding mechanisms, she said.

“There are also conversations with banks and traditional sectors that fund built infrastructure,” she said. “There are many, many different conversations going on.”

The full report can be found online at the International Institute for Sustainable Development website.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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