Indigenous peoples at greater risk of flooding caused by climate change: study

River flooding is more likely to impact Indigenous populations.

A new study has found socially vulnerable groups, including Indigenous peoples, are at greater risk for flooding caused by climate change.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., used national data sets on flood hazards, residential address points and census population to determine flood vulnerable neighborhoods and the number of residential properties exposed to river, periodic rainfall and coastal flooding.

Data was examined across 4,458 CTs, or census tracts, a small geographic area that typically has a population between 2,500 and 8,000 people.

The study’s findings were published in the Environmental Research journal in July.

“We need to start thinking about what happens,” said lead researcher Liton Chakraborty of Waterloo’s Partners for Action, a research initiative that aims to promote flood resiliency.

The study found that “traditionally-recognized vulnerable groups” such as Indigenous Peoples, females, lone-parent households, South Asians, the elderly, other visible minorities and economically insecure residents are at a higher risk of flooding in Canadian neighbourhoods due to systemic disadvantages.

Chakraborty said those disadvantages could include living in areas that could be prone to flooding and proximity to environmental hazards.

“This needs to be taken care of well in advance to reduce that inequality, because when the real flood hits, this may contribute to the systemic inequality more than what we found now,” he said.

Flooding has been a growing issue in Indigenous communities across Canada. In May, spring flooding forced evacuations in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., which is home to the Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ First Nation and Métis.

That same month Peguis First Nation in Treaty 1 (Manitoba), was put under an evacuation order after ice jams on the Fisher River drove up water levels.

Chakraborty said his own research has shown Indigenous populations have high vulnerability to flooding.

“Even though the flood exposures are pretty much similar in terms of land area, they are highly socially vulnerable than other communities, and the obvious question is why? Because of the lack of the resources, lack of access to the information,” he said.

Indigenous communities at risk

The study notes previous environmental justice research, or EJ, has shown vulnerable groups often experience more exposure to hazards such as noise pollution, air pollution and hazardous waste, though studies on exposure to flooding are limited.

It states “Distributive EJ research on flooding is scarce in Canada, although flooding is Canada’s most common and costly climate change risk, severely disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods.”

It goes on to say the study is the first of its kind to research whether vulnerable populations are more at risk of flooding.

One finding to come out of the study is that “a greater proportion of Indigenous populations are significantly correlated with the exposure to fluvial (river) flood risk, and a large proportion of South Asian populations are significantly associated with exposure to coastal flood risk.”

Chakraborty noted he conducted a separate study published earlier this year on Indigenous reserve land that found communities are at higher risk of hardship from climate-change-caused flooding because of pre-existing socioeconomic vulnerability.

According to that study, 81 per cent of reserves had some flood exposure that impacted either population or residential properties.

Chakraborty said the most recent Indigenous population survey from 2017 was compared with 2016 census data which showed Indigenous populations occupy mostly flat, front areas close to riverfronts which are more prone to flooding.

“Indigenous communities in Canada are highly exposed to different types of flood, and it is all across my study. It found consistent evidence,” he said.

Chakraborty said Indigenous communities like many others the study are often disadvantaged when it comes to coping with risk.

“It could be the access to resources, lack of information, or when they barred the property or occupying that land area for a long time. Maybe they didn’t understand that climate change could be an issue and in 100 years it could be flooded 20 meters high,” he said.

‘The consequences are severe’

Chakraborty said extreme weather events are likely to increase as climate change continues to alter the environment.

“Actually, one of the most important correlations between climate change and environmental hazard comes through flooding and wildfire because they’re related to temperature increase precipitation,” he said.

Chakraborty said flooding is the most catastrophic consequence of climate change, such as river flooding, extreme rainfall-related flooding and coastal overflow flooding.

“I can say that like if the greenhouse gas emission continues to increase like this, what we are experiencing now, and we (continue to) experience more extreme flooding weather events, then the consequences are severe,” he said.

The study states its findings can be used by policy and decision-makers for effective emergency management and disaster risk reduction, as well as help address systemic “socioeconomic inequities in exposure to flood hazards to develop practical guidelines for an equitable flood risk management approach.”

Chakraborty emphasized it’s important vulnerable communities have the tools to be resilient in times of flood disaster. He said that could include things like making sure they have to access to retrofit programs and government investment.

With files from Charlotte Morritt-Jacobs and the Canadian Press

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