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B.C. floods put spotlight on Canada’s infrastructures. Improve them now, experts say

Click to play video: 'B.C. floods: Merritt and Princeton continue to struggle after catastrophic flooding' B.C. floods: Merritt and Princeton continue to struggle after catastrophic flooding
WATCH: B.C. Floods – Merritt and Princeton continue to struggle after catastrophic flooding – Nov 17, 2021

The historic floods in British Columbia are yet another reminder that Canada’s infrastructure needs to be improved to better handle climate change disasters, experts say.

However, simply preparing for extreme weather events on the scale of what’s happened in B.C. this week isn’t sustainable long-term.

Read more: B.C.’s historic flood seen in photo from space

If global temperatures continue to rise, pushing climate targets out of reach, these events will not only persist — they’ll be worse, which is why we need to act, experts say.

“The huge human cost and capital cost of this event will pale in comparison to what’s going to happen in the future,” said Kent Moore, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Toronto.

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“We have to deal with that problem.”

In the southern B.C., torrential rainfall that fell earlier this week has led to flooding, landslides and mudslides that damaged highways, triggered evacuations and isolated thousands of people.

Read more: Reopening of Coquihalla Highway could take ‘weeks or months’ due to flood damage

Environment Canada has called the weather event an “atmospheric river,” which poured hundreds of milliliters of rain on communities, including 174 mm in the District of Hope and 154.6 mm in the City of Chilliwack on Sunday alone.

At least one person has died, and search teams are looking for survivors throughout the region. Some residents have been forced to evacuate their homes, including the entire community of Merritt and hundreds of people in Abbotsford.

The provincial government has declared a state of emergency, and the federal government has been offering assistance to manage the crisis.

Click to play video: 'B.C. floods: Canadian military to assist with recovery' B.C. floods: Canadian military to assist with recovery
B.C. floods: Canadian military to assist with recovery – Nov 17, 2021

The floods have not only accentuated the spotlight on climate change, but on climate infrastructure throughout the country, Moore said.

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Infrastructures, like sewer systems, water pumping stations and dams, are designed for a certain range of weather extremes, but the frequency of these is changing, he said.

“One has to think about where we’re planning our highways, where we put our wastewater treatment plants (and) pumps … the lower mainland of B.C. needs to be pumped out because it’s at risk of flooding,” Moore said.

“If we just rebuild what’s there without understanding that we need to essentially revisit how we build things, then we’re just going to have this problem in the future.”

Read more: Flood waters rise again in Abbotsford; 600 rescued as key pump station holds out

Water pumping stations have been the focus in Abbotsford, B.C., where officials have worried over the possible failure of the Barrowtown Pump Station, which moves nearly 1.9 million litres of water per minute. It continues to operate at full power, Mayor Henry Braun said Thursday.

The station has remained in operation thanks to 300 volunteers who have worked to protect the facility with sandbags.

A failure could have led to “catastrophic” further flooding on the Sumas Prairie, an agricultural area that’s been hardest hit by flooding in the region.

“We are still not pumping anywhere near the amount of water out of the system that is coming into the prairie from across the border,” Braun said Thursday.

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“We will have numbers at some point of how much water is left in there and how long will it take to pump out, but we are not talking days – we are talking weeks.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. floods: 600 people evacuated from Abbotsford as water levels continue to fluctuate, mayor says' B.C. floods: 600 people evacuated from Abbotsford as water levels continue to fluctuate, mayor says
B.C. floods: 600 people evacuated from Abbotsford as water levels continue to fluctuate, mayor says – Nov 18, 2021

Ryan Ness, adaptation research director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, told Global News that governments should look at their water pumping systems to see if they can truly handle extreme rainfall and flooding.

“Were those pumps designed to function in the right level of disaster and at a level of disaster that could have been anticipated?” he said.

“That question can be asked all around the country when it comes to flooding: Are our defenses up to the task of the types of events that we can reasonably foresee? Especially now that we understand that climate change is going to increase more often and how severe floods are going to be.”

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A woman and children who were stranded by high water due to flooding are rescued by a volunteer operating a boat in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Particularly in B.C., the province is going to need hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to ensure its dike systems, which control water flow, don’t fail during future events, said Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Forests also need rehabilitation after years of logging and wildfires, he added.

“Without a healthy cover of trees there to soak up and to moderate water flow, you are going to see more extreme events in terms of potential flooding, as well as more extreme events in terms of drought,” Parfitt said.

“All of these things have to be looked at and they’re going to require a tremendous amount of investment, and it’s not going to be solved overnight.”

Read more: Fires to floods: How extreme weather has played out in B.C. in 2021

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Other areas of infrastructure also need to be looked at, according to Ness, include homes and buildings, roads and railways, and electricity systems.

Day-to-day life depends on them as climate change realities take further hold, he said, as those pieces of infrastructure are in use across Canada.

“We need to rethink and redesign what we haven’t yet built,” Ness said.

“But we need to think about how to make the huge amount of infrastructure that’s already in place, and that isn’t going anywhere, more resilient to a changing climate.”

Click to play video: 'COP26: Canada championing climate agreement despite critics' COP26: Canada championing climate agreement despite critics
COP26: Canada championing climate agreement despite critics – Nov 14, 2021

Climate change was the focus of the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Canada, which was among the attending nations, made several pitches to the world on how it will tackle rising global temperatures.

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They include a promise to cap and reduce pollution from the oil and gas sector toward net-zero by 2050, and a pledge to stop exporting coal by 2030.

However, a major pitch at the conference — a last-minute deal involving 200 countries committing to “phase down” instead of “phase out” the use of coal, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions — drew criticism from several countries and activists.

Read more: B.C. flooding: How will insurance companies manage as climate risks get worse?

Experts generally welcomed the climate strategizing by global leaders, but have acknowledged that regional and provincial governments have their own roles to play and could take concrete action sooner.

Moore said Canadian regions must focus on their own abilities to tackle climate change to cool the need for recurring infrastructure improvements.

“We have to control our emissions of carbon and really cool the planet down,” he said.

“We just can’t keep on engineering our way out of this.”

— With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey and The Canadian Press

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