Manitoba infrastructure won't withstand climate change, expert says

Changes in climate will have dire consequences on Manitoba's infrastructure and consequently its economy, unless something changes, says a water security expert.

Storms last longer, occur more frequently and deliver more precipitation, which has economic fallout

Overland flooding along Highway 26 at St. Francois Xavier, Man., gives a small look at the extent of the flooding in 2011. Repairs cost the province more than $200M. (CBC)

A water security expert says climate change will have dire consequences on Manitoba's infrastructure and consequently its economy, unless something changes.

Bob Sandford, EPCOR Water Security Research Chair at United Nations University, began working to help solve water-related climate issues in Manitoba a decade ago. His first focus was on Lake Winnipeg — now his focus is the province's infrastructure. 

"You see that there are larger changes to the hydrologic cycle that are causing more frequent flooding, greater storms and causing greater infrastructure damage. We are of the view that this could have serious economic consequences for the province, so our meeting today is about how we deal with those matters," Sandford told CBC's Radio Noon Thursday. 

Sandford spoke to the Threatened Infrastructure conference Thursday in Winnipeg, hosted by the Manitoba Capital Region. 

Sandford explained that the hydrologic cycle he mentioned refers to how water is naturally redistributed across the planet, through evaporation primarily from the oceans, and then distributed globally through weather patterns. 

With a warming climate, the atmosphere is able to absorb more water vapour, Sandford said. 

"What we're seeing is that the storms that occur as the greater energy in the atmosphere is dissipated are much larger and can last longer and deliver a great deal more precipitation, causing massive flooding on a scale we're not used to managing."

Municipal responsibility

Manitobans have already begun to see this pattern in the flooding that occurred in 2011 as well as last summer, Sandford said, adding the province can expect "serial serious climate events."

"The infrastructure in Manitoba is designed for an early and more stable climate era. And that's changing and much of the very expensive infrastructure you have in the province is only part-way through its design life and unable to deal with these extremes and that's why you're having flooding in these communities that's causing a great deal of personal hardship," Sandford said. 

"And this has huge economic costs, not just to the agricultural community but to the economy of Manitoba as a whole."

Municipalities, scientists, industries and the private sector were all in attendance at the conference on Thursday. Sandford said that is a step in the right direction, as this problem will need cooperation and collaboration to solve this problem.

"It's packed, I've never seen so many mayors and reeves in one room in my life," he said. 

Without action, Sandford said development will be reversed in parts of Manitoba.

"What we realize now is that if we want to enjoy what we have in the future, then we're going to have to rethink how we manage these events. Which means we're going to have to rethink how we plan for, how we design, how we finance and how we think about sustainability of infrastructure in the future," he said. 

He added that the primary responsibility will fall to municipalities to ensure they are careful in planning and managing their infrastructure future, instead of relying on federal grants as needs arise.


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