Disaster management: big picture actions to reduce the severity of catastrophic events

Aerial view of flooding near Abbotsford, BC (photo courtesy BC Department of Transportation)

2021 has been a tough weather year. From prolonged drought and excessive heat, to the flooding witnessed in recent weeks in British Columbia — weather disasters have had a tremendous impact on Canadian farms and agriculture businesses.

Erik Davies, from Barefoot Consulting, has spent his career working on disaster recovery and risk management issues. Last month he spoke at Farm Management Canada’s AgExcellence conference on how we gamble with the future and what we need to do to improve the odds. He believes Canada can build a more resilient agriculture and food system, but government and industry must act now.

One of the first things that needs to change is how we communicate weather risk. Disasters are happening with increasing frequency says Davies, and he believes it’s time to retire the ‘once in 100 years’ classification for weather events.

“That phrase was adopted as a way of simplifying the idea that a flood had a one per cent chance of happening every year. It does not literally mean a flood happens once every 100 years,” says Davies. “Unfortunately, I’ve heard many people accept the phrase for its literal meaning.”

Davies also says the phrase can be used for justifying certain forms of risk taking. “People think, if it only happens once every 100 years, I can build my house on the floodplain. Worse still, when one person does it, others follow. Then the original risk is forgotten until the next big disaster happens.”

In his presentation, Davies shared some of his disaster experiences, including working in Indonesia after a tsunami. One of his key takeaways is the fact that disasters never repeat themselves. Preparing for the next disaster based on your last experience is not always the best way to go. It’s certainly a consideration for those working to prevent future disasters in British Columbia and the devastation witnessed in Abbortsford and the Sumas Prairie.

“One of the key takeaways from this flooding event should be to look at all the vulnerabilities that these areas are exposed to, then design mitigation and adaptation measures that address a suite of these risks,” says Davies. “To focus on just floods would be to miss the point.”

There are simply too many variables in any system for a disaster like a flood to repeat itself the same way, stresses Davies. “The next flood could be triggered by a very different storm event, that starts in a different area. Timing could also make a difference, both in terms of the season and on whether the area has recovered. Some of the worst disasters I’ve seen hit the same spot a second time in a short period of time. This means the area is already vulnerable and the impacts can be much worse.”

(Listen to RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin and Erik Davies from Barefoot Consulting discuss how Canada can build a more  resilient agriculture and food system. Story continues after the interview.)

Davies says there is typically a short window of opportunity after disasters when people are willing to change their behaviours and make significant change.  “The opportunity for shifting behaviours lasts weeks, not months. It’s important to have frank discussions around risk management sooner rather than later.”

Based on his experience, what’s the most appropriate response to the B.C. floods? What should farmers and governments do to manage those risks?

“Top of my list is to use the current crisis as an opportunity to raise awareness around the other risks facing farm operations that need to be managed. These could include disease, droughts, severe weather or floods. This is something that can be done both at the farm level, but also collectively.

Davies says it’s also an opportunity to strengthen disaster management systems; update provincial disaster risk reduction priorities; and have frank discussions around what it’s going to take to reduce the risk of future floods to an acceptable level.

“The Sumas flats was built on a drained lake. It’s a risk that will not go away unless managed appropriately. And this will cost money  — maybe a lot of money — depending on what strategies are used to mitigate these risks.”

Davies also believes innovation will play a key role in securing the future.

“Western countries always try to engineer our way out of a problem. When I worked in Asia I was amazed at how many farmers cultivated their crops and livestock on areas that are partially or fully flooded every year. They have opted for adaptation strategies that allow them to live with high water levels,” says Davies.

For example, farms are often located in elevated areas where livestock can go to escape flood waters with food reserves to survive the flood. “It might sound bizarre to someone in Canada, but solutions like that have worked for centuries in other parts of the world. Maybe we could adapt and update them?”

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