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Residents look out across the flooding of Sumas Prairie near Abbotsford Photo: Quinn Bender/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Experts warn B.C. should better prepare for climate-crisis displacement

A recent report calls for long-term planning to protect people forced to flee their homes during floods and wildfires.

By Shaurya Kshatri , in City , on November 30, 2021

Record-breaking wildfires and severe floods from this year alone have destroyed the homes and livelihoods of thousands of British Columbians. Many who have been displaced are living in hotels waiting for a green signal to go back home.

They are currently getting some immediate help through Emergency Management B.C., which is providing temporary accommodations and fooding.

But a recent report by the nonprofit Climate Displacement Planning Initiative says that B.C. is going to have to go much further than that as climate-change impacts get increasingly severe and threaten to permanently uproot people from their homes. The report stresses the need to consider planned relocations to better assist people address wider problems of long-term displacement like housing and employment. 

“The government doesn’t have any policies around climate displacement. As such, long-term effects of human mobility due to wildfires and floods have been largely overlooked,” said Nicole Bates-Eamer, the report’s lead author and a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Victoria.

Nicole Bates-Eamer, climate- displacement researcher

People who are working in the field of emergency support in B.C. concur that the increasing frequency of natural disasters has started to put a strain on emergency responses. 

“Those displaced last summer due to wildfires had to evacuate again during the recent floods,” said Beryl Itani, who has been involved with the emergency-support services in Kelowna for 35 years.

Itani has helped several evacuees find refuge in Kelowna, housing people temporarily in the city’s hotels and arenas. While, so far, she has focused only on short-term displacement, she does acknowledge that longer-term evacuees will pose a challenge for a city like Kelowna where housing is already a big concern. 

Echoing the findings from Bates-Eamer’s report, another climate-migration specialist, Sarah Kamal, stressed the need for B.C. to draw up plans that would protect people who are displaced for an extended period of time. Drawing from the case of the now-charred town of Lytton, Kamal says that the town residents are still housed in hotels uncertain about when they can return, five months since the summer wildfires. 

A more extreme case comes from the 2011 floods in Manitoba that displaced hundreds of First Nations residents from the Lake St. Martin region. They were only able to return home starting from May this year, 11 years after the initial evacuation. According to Kamal, the displaced people were scattered in Winnipeg hotels, among other places. 

Sarah Kamal, UBC sustainability scholar and a climate-migration specialist

Experts agree that B.C. might face a similar situation.

Kamal’s own study on climate displacement also suggests that planned relocation would be a better long-term solution. Drawing from best practices in Bangladesh, she talks about developing “climate havens.” for people who get pushed out of rural areas or small towns and towards cities because of climate disasters.

“Bangladesh has prepared smaller cities with affordable houses to receive large waves of people, and reduce pressure on major urban sprawls,” she said. 

B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has acknowledged these issues and expressed a commitment to addressing them.

“We recognize that more must be done. We’re working across ministries to finalize a new strategy to help prepare for the impacts of climate change and build on the climate preparedness and adaptation strategy, which will be finalized early next year,” said Pamela Roth, the public-affairs officer at the ministry.