Remember the people factor

A University of Lethbridge geography researcher is suggesting that flood mitigation and future planning processes involve people in the communities most affected – to help cities and towns look ahead and reduce some of the challenges faced across the province by recent flooding.

Dr. Tom Johnston, who studies the human dimensions of natural hazards, says that as much as the recently-announced Government of Alberta flood mitigation plan and measures such as an expert panel on flood issues are important and timely steps forward, the processes by which people and the environment engage is what concerns him as flood reduction planning begins.

“With many thousands of people displaced over a short period of time, entire communities have been affected by flooding and the critical element to planning for the future is community engagement,” says Johnston.

Dr. Tom Johnston cautions against flood mitigation processes that don’t factor in how people engage with the environment.

He adds that structural responses – constructing flood-control dams or physically changing or dredging parts of a river to better manage water flow – need to be matched with non-structural or policy-based responses, such as incorporating the latest and best available flood hazard information into community and land-use planning, and even prohibiting development in high-risk places.

“It is extremely important that in addition to scientists and engineers that we have community involvement in any land-use planning process,” says Johnston. “This not only ensures that the challenge of flooding is minimized, but it also allows community members to be aware of, and fully involved in, the future of their community.”

Johnston adds that social scientists, such as human geographers and other behavioural scientists also need to be included in the discussion because their expertise would complement that of hydrologists and engineers.

The Government of Alberta recently rolled out a Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan, which Johnston says will be helpful in increasing public awareness about flood-affected areas of the province.

“A central feature of the plan is a web-based interactive map ( that highlights “Flood Hazard Areas” down to the local scale.  The GIS-based system is operator friendly, and if you have used interactive mapping software on your smart phone or some other device, you can easily navigate this system,” Johnston says.

The hazard maps will be useful for homebuyers, and should be helpful in guiding flood-proofing efforts and for land-use planning, Johnston adds, but in order for the system to achieve anything close to its full potential, two conditions must be satisfied.

“First, the studies used to delineate flood hazard areas should be as current as possible. Second, local and regional authorities charged with the responsibility for land-use planning must be willing to use the system to guide their decision making, even though this could involve constraining the range of residential location choices available to citizens.”

Johnston says that as of June 2013, more than 50 flood hazard studies had been completed for the provincial government.

“The most recent studies in and around the communities experiencing severe flooding in June were completed after February 1996 (, or 17 years ago.”

Given the recent flood events, future hazard zone mapping should be more consistent, Johnston says.

“We are dealing with dynamic systems, many of which are under increasing pressure from a variety of human activities, so it is prudent to make sure they are done regularly.”