Room for the River: Applying Dutch Flood Mitigation Strategies in Canada

Image source: High River RCMP (retrieved from http://www.calgaryherald.com/)

During the catastrophic flooding which impacted southern Alberta in June 2013, the Town of High River, located 76 km south of Calgary, was particularly hard hit. The flooding required the evacuation of the town of 13,000, and the displacement of over 100,000 across southern Alberta. 

Following the flooding, as a part of future flood mitigation efforts, Mayor Craig Snodgrass announced that the Wallaceville district of High River, would be “returned to its natural state as a measure aimed at providing increased flood protection to the town.” The Province of Alberta developed a floodway buyout program for affected residents, and removed all structures and infrastructure in subsequent months. 

This highlights an emerging trend in DRR scholarship, regarding ‘building back better’ following a disaster. Paradoxically, in many cases, ‘building back better’ means not building back at all. Additional mitigation efforts, including the Springbank Reservoir west of Calgary, continue to be the source of much debate among area residents.

As the cost of extreme weather events continues to rise, emergency management professionals are working with municipal planners on how to minimize vulnerability via a risk-based approach. Unfortunately, knowing the risks has not prevented municipalities continuing to allow development in high-risk areas such as floodplains, wildland-urban interphase or areas prone to erosion and settling. 

In a 2019 doctoral thesis written by Lynne Njeri Mbajiorgu for the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, she studied how four small to medium sized municipalities implemented resilience programs for flood, wildfire and drought risks. In particular, Mbajiorgu notes inconsistency in the application of risk-based, and risk avoidance measures with respect to flood plain management. Any such efforts should err on the side of reducing future risk exposure and vulnerability.

To remedy these inconsistencies, Mbajiorgu recommends a proactive prioritization of land-use planning as a mitigation measure. She argues that land-use planners have a particular responsibility to work closely with municipal officials “to influence, guide and advice decision-makers about risk mitigation measures throughout the land-use development process, starting from bare undeveloped land to the issuance of development permits.” (Mbajiorgu, 2019). 

In a bid to reduce risk and mitigate the impact of severe flood damage, in 2007 the Netherlands embarked on the ‘Room for the River Programme’ (RFRP) to manage and restore the rivers’ natural flood plain. The 30 projects completed to date have resulted in measures to give the river the space to flood safely, while improving the quality of the immediate surroundings. 

In a study done by Eva A. Bogdan at the University of Alberta, she compared and contrasted flood mitigation approaches adopted by the Netherlands and the Alberta government. Similar to the conclusions reached by Mbajiorgu, the report concluded that while many Albertans support the RFRP approach, there is a misalignment in governance frameworks that would enable greater collaboration. As Bogdan states: “Extensive technical advances have been made in flood management, but to effectively address this wicked problem, better understanding and innovations are also needed in the social dimensions, including coordination of policies and practices as well as collaboration between stakeholders.” Bogdan identifies an existing knowledge gap in the current literature, requiring further and systematic comparative analysis. 

What are your thoughts? How have your governments addressed the need for greater flood mitigation to protect homes and properties? I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how the Dutch approach can be applied to other jurisdictions.