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News of the devastating floods in Alberta hit Canadians hard. We’ve all been moved by extraordinary stories of first responders and neighbors stepping in to help and give selflessly at a time of great need. As people begin to pick up their lives, and talk turns to what Calgary and other communities can do to rebuild, safeguarding our irreplaceable, most precious flood-protection assets should be given top priority.
The severe floods in Alberta used to be referred to as “once in a generation” or “once in a century”. As recent floods in Europe and India are added to the list, that’s scaled up to “once in a decade”. Scientists and insurance executives alike predict extreme weather events will increase in intensity and frequency. Climate change is already having a dramatic impact on our planet. Communities around the world, like those in Alberta, are rallying to prepare.
While calls are mounting for the need to rebuild and strengthen infrastructure such as dikes, storm-water management systems and stream-channel diversion projects, we’ve overlooked one of our best climate change-fighting tools: nature. By protecting nature, we protect ourselves, our communities and our families.
The business case for maintaining and restoring nature’s ecosystems is stronger than ever. Wetlands, forests, flood plains and other natural systems absorb and store water and reduce the risk of floods and storms, usually more efficiently and cost-effectively than built infrastructure. Wetlands help control floods by storing large amounts of water during heavy rains—something paved city surfaces just don’t do.
A study of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Basins showed wetland restoration would have provided enough flood water storage to accommodate excess river flows associated with flooding in the U.S. Midwest in 1993. Research done for the City of Calgary more than 30 years ago made similar suggestions about the value of protecting flood plains from over-development. When wetlands are destroyed, the probability of a heavy rainfall causing flooding increases significantly. Yet we’re losing wetlands around the world at a rate estimated at between one and three percent a year.
By failing to work with nature in building our cities, we’ve disrupted hydrological cycles and the valuable services they provide. The readily available benefits of intact ecosystems must be replaced by man-made infrastructure that can fail and is costly to build, maintain and replace.
Protecting and restoring rich forests, flood plains and wetlands near our urban areas is critical to reduce carbon emissions and protect against the effects of climate change. Nature effectively sequesters and stores carbon, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also regulates water. Forested basins, for example, have greater capacity to absorb water than clear-cut areas where higher peak stream flows, flooding, erosion and landslides are common.
How can we protect ecosystems rather than seeing conservation as an impediment to economic growth? The answer is to recognize their real value. The David Suzuki Foundation has evaluated some of Canada’s natural assets. This approach calculates the economic contribution of natural services, such as flood protection and climate regulation, and adds that to our balance sheets. Because traditional economic calculations ignore these benefits and services, decisions often lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems upon which we rely. Unfortunately, we often appreciate the value of an ecosystem only when it’s not there to do its job.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Cities around North America are discovering that maintaining ecosystems can save money, protect the environment and create healthier communities. A study of the Bowker Creek watershed on southern Vancouver Island, BC, showed that by incorporating rain gardens, green roofs and other green infrastructure, peak flows projected for 2080 from increased precipitation due to climate change could be reduced by 95 percent. Opting to protect and restore watersheds in the 1990s rather than building costly filtration systems has saved New York City billions of dollars.
Intact ecosystems are vital in facing the climate change challenges ahead. They also give us health and quality-of-life benefits. Responsible decision-making needs to consider incentives for protecting and restoring nature, and disincentives for degrading it.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
IN WHAT OTHER WAYS CAN MAINTAINING ECOSYSTEMS HELP PREVENT NATURAL DISASTERS?
The World Economic Forum (WEF), meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, is the biggest annual gathering of influential thinkers and leaders from the worlds of business, politics, media and civil society. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Director General Jim Leape explains why WWF is there.
What are the main environmental issues on your mind going into this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos?
There is an ever greater need for a sustainable approach to business—especially regarding resource use, in a world of rapidly increasing consumption. Humanity is already using the equivalent of over 1.5 planets—yet for life we all rely on clean air and healthy freshwater resources, abundant forests and thriving natural ecosystems.
WWF is active in preserving freshwater systems, ocean life and forests; encouraging the use and development of renewable energy; reducing the impact on natural resources of major commodity supply chains like paper, palm oil and soy; and generally lightening humanity’s footprint on the natural world. We envision a future where humans live in harmony with nature, and we partner with major players on the world stage—politicians, civil society, faith groups, labour unions, businesses and many others—in achieving that goal.
The theme of this year’s Davos event is ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models," and this links closely with WWF’s vision of change that makes room for both social and environmental sustainability. We only have one planet, and a finite bank of precious natural resources. But with bold and thoughtful solutions, there is ample room for green businesses to thrive within a model of global sustainable development.
In recent years, WEF has proved to be an increasingly important place to engage with companies on sustainability. Good initiatives have started to emerge regarding water, agriculture and sustainable consumption—and I look forward to see how these good intentions can become more concrete in the coming days and weeks.
The WEF event in Davos is an opportunity to catch up with business and corporate contacts. How important is WWF’s work with the private sector, and why should businesses care about the environment?
Business and industry have a massive impact on natural resources, and companies have a duty to ensure that they use those resources sustainably. We all benefit from products and services in our daily lives, but the private sector should be encouraged to conduct its business in a way that entails a minimum impact on the natural world and the ecosystems on which we all depend.
Companies that want to be competitive today and tomorrow should be concerned about sustainability. Licence to operate is being increasingly influenced by environmental and social performance—and this trend will only continue.
WWF engages with corporate partners to bring about real change on the ground—supporting responsible businesses to reduce their ecological footprint.
The next big event this year is the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in Brazil in June. What does WWF hope will come out of that global gathering?
Two decades after the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this year’s Rio+20 conference is a major opportunity for the world to commit to charting a course for creating shared prosperity within the limits of this one planet. Twenty years ago the term ‘sustainable development’ came into currency, but this has still not been followed by sufficient action in making the concept a reality. Rio is an opportunity to put things back on track.
I am hopeful that Rio+20 will prove a catalyst in sparking new commitments and urging major players—including governments, businesses and others—to stretch themselves in aiming for a more sustainable approach to what they do. The WEF in Davos this week is an ideal platform to inspire governments, corporate players and others to step up and prepare the road to Rio.
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