According to a 2008 OECD report by Nicholls et al. (PDF) that ranks global cities in terms of exposure to risks of climate change, Vancouver is rated 15th for vulnerable assets, with USD $55 billion at risk; and 32nd for population at risk, with 320,000 people exposed.
Many municipalities in Metro Vancouver are both coastal and on a large-flow river. These urban areas are exposed to the combined climate-change risks of sea-level rise, storm surges with coastal flooding and riverine flooding. A 2001 study by Yin (PDF) states that a one-metre rise in sea level, which is projected for 2100, would inundate more than 4600 hectares of farmland and more than 15,000 hectares of industrial and residential urban areas. Approximately 220,000 people live near or below sea level in Vancouver suburbs Richmond and Delta. These areas are protected by 127 kilometres of dykes that were not built to accommodate the predicted sea-level rise.

The issues of hazards and vulnerability as well as the approaches to reduce climate change impacts are inherently interdisciplinary. A comprehensive approach is needed to reduce the risks posed to people and to protect key assets such as highways, sewer systems, shipping and ferry terminals. Vulnerability and impacts depend on not only physical hazards but on human factors such as socio-economic status and health.

The Coastal Cities at Risk (CCaR) program is supporting strategies that reduce risks to socially and economically vulnerable populations. To this end, CCaR has a team of researchers dedicated to identifying people who may need more help when it comes to preparing for, coping with and recovering from a major flood event. This social vulnerability (SoVI) research team is working to combine traditional approaches to risk reduction with socio-economic vulnerability analysis to enhance locally-tailored planning, disaster prevention, emergency response and post-disaster recovery.

Traditionally, natural hazard risk and vulnerability reduction strategies focus on biophysical factors. The starting point is to determine the physical characteristics of hazards, such as the parameters of a floodplain and how many buildings and people will be affected. The SoVI team is shifting the focus to first look at socio-economic factors that determine the ability to cope with stress or change. For instance, in the event of a flood, do individuals have access to a vehicle to evacuate? The SoVI team is using a socio-economic lens to assess vulnerability by identifying neighbourhoods with characteristics that indicate vulnerability such as significant numbers of low income households, single parent families, seniors and dependence on public transit.

This innovative approach uses Geographical Information System technology to map these indicators. Since data from Statistics Canada is not always representative of what is actually happening on the ground, the SoVI researchers are collaborating with municipal planners and making adjustments to the data as needed.
Once social vulnerability factors are mapped, the next step is to overlay physical hazards, such as the new floodplain according to climate change projections. The mapping will identify ‘hot spots’ – areas where people with limited socio-economic adaptive capacity are vulnerable to flooding. These areas can then be further analyzed to determine who lives there and how their needs can be incorporated into planning.

By ACT Coastal Impacts RA Yaheli Klein, Graduate Student, SCARP, UBC