By Sophie Guilbault
According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), approximately 60% of public infrastructure in Canada is built and maintained by municipalities (FCM, 2023). Many of Canada’s infrastructure assets are aging and were designed to construction codes and standards based on historical climate data as opposed to future climate scenarios. Each year, municipal buildings, transportation systems, water supply and wastewater treatment systems, and many other types of public infrastructure are affected by severe weather events in communities across the country. The repeated impacts faced by Canadians have led many communities to rethink the way they design and manage municipal infrastructure to ensure their long-term durability and performance under current and future climate conditions.
The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction recently published a report entitled “Cities Adapt with Climate Resilient Infrastructure: Celebrating Local Leadership”, which showcases successful adaptation initiatives in public infrastructure from both small and large communities across provinces and territories. These examples demonstrate how communities used various methods and strategies to understand their specific climate risk and infrastructure vulnerability to either rehabilitate or build new public infrastructure.
Understanding climate risk to infrastructure
The approaches promoted by communities in the latest Cities Adapt report emphasize the importance of managing public infrastructure with a focus on performance over the lifetime of the asset and based on future climate projections. When evaluating the risk to infrastructure and the broader system it operates in, various elements need to be considered, such as exposure, vulnerability, capacity, maintenance needs, etc. Vulnerability assessments are instrumental to support lasting design and rehabilitation needs and can assist municipalities in their long-term asset management planning effort, allowing communities to inform decision-makers on priority investments.
Canadian municipalities showcased in the report used various strategies to further their understanding of public infrastructure vulnerability. While some relied on staff of consultant analysis, others used strategies such as the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee (PIEVC) protocol. The PIEVC protocol was developed by Engineers Canada with financial support from Natural Resources Canada to conduct an engineering assessment of the vulnerability of Canada’s public infrastructure to the impacts of climate change. It is available at no charge for any Canadian public infrastructure. The PIEVC approach uses both historical and future climate conditions, establishes the adaptive capacity of a wide range of infrastructure assets, and promotes cross-sectoral collaborations through a series of workshops to evaluate the infrastructure design, operation and maintenance in an effort to identify which components are at higher risk of specific climate threats. In one example, the City of Ottawa used the PIEVC protocol and other risk analysis methods to gain a deeper understanding of the risks faced by its Graham Creek stormwater infrastructure. While the initial assessment was for a single project, the approach was successful in identifying recommendations to improve resiliency and the City decided to scale up the approach for all future risk mitigation initiatives. The City of Ottawa’s approach enables municipal staff to update information around climate risks and infrastructure components, ensuring that asset management strategies evolve as new information becomes available.
Many communities highlighted the importance of understanding risk to secure financial investments in public infrastructure. As early adopters of the PIEVC protocol in 2011, the City of Laval collected important data to analyze the vulnerabilities of a major overflow structure. Unfortunately, the City did not have an overall master plan for its water department at the time, and was unable to fund the rehabilitation initiatives recommended in the analysis. Fast forward several years, Laval submitted its PIEVC report outlining the risks and vulnerabilities of the Belgrand overflow structure as part of its application to a newly-established funding program for climate adaptation and was successful in securing the necessary funds. In this case, the vulnerability risk assessment gave the municipality important insight and a clear path forward when funding became available to implement risk reduction actions.
In the Northwest Territories, the Town of Norman Wells faced increasing erosion on the riverbank, threatening the stability of local roads and other infrastructure. Concerned with this worsening situation, the Town requested funding through the Climate Change in the North Program of Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada to conduct a geotechnical investigation of the riverbank. The final report led to the development and implementation of a comprehensive drainage plan to reduce erosion and flooding risk.
A comprehensive strategy for success
When it comes to planning, building, and rehabilitating climate resilient infrastructure, it is instrumental to clearly understand local risks and vulnerabilities. However, other considerations are equally important to ensure long-term success. The Cities Adapt report found many successful communities had established strong asset management plans that detailed the necessary maintenance and prioritized future asset investments over time. Additionally, many communities benefitted from cross-sectoral collaborations either to better understand their infrastructure risk, or to secure funding for infrastructure investments. Finally, the report highlighted the necessity of increasing local capacity to perform climate-resilient planning and maintenance in an effort to ensure long-term performance of public infrastructure. This implies investments in financial, human and political resources.
The report published by ICLR demonstrated the leadership of 20 communities who have creatively found ways to increase the resilience of their infrastructure assets. While more widespread actions are needed across the country to tackle the infrastructure crisis, many Canadian communities are taking the lead in adapting Canada’s infrastructure to a changing climate.
Sophie Guilbault is the Director of Partnerships at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a multi-disciplinary disaster prevention research institute affiliated with Western University. Since joining ICLR, she has designed, implemented, and lead several research and partnership programs to strengthen the research agenda of the Institute, including ICLR’s Cities Adapt, Resilience in Recovery Program and Quick Response Research programs. Sophie holds degrees in architecture (B.Arch & M.Arch) from Laval University as well as a graduate degree (M.Sc.) in disaster and emergency management from Tulane University.
Federation of Canadian Municipalities. (2023). Infrastructure. Available at: https://fcm.ca/en/focus-areas/infrastructure.