Indigenous-led Flood Plain Mapping Project Combines Technology with Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Emily Amon
Green Communities Canada
September 22, 2022
thames river watershed

The Thames River watershed showing First Nations, municipalities and conservation authorities. Credit: The Thames River (Deshkan Ziibi) Shared Waters Approach to Water Quality and Quantity Final Draft, December 2019

Rapid urbanization and climate change are contributing to increased flooding in communities across Canada. A combination of aging and poorly maintained stormwater infrastructure and increased severity and duration of rain events means many coastal communities are facing far greater risk of flooding than ever before.

These events cause costly damages, environmental degradation and potential loss of life and livelihood. In 2021, the Insurance Bureau of Canada recorded more than $2 billion of damage due to severe weather events. Further, the impacts of these storms and floods on vulnerable and remote Canadians tend to be more acute.

Many Indigenous communities across Canada are at a great risk for seasonal flooding. In spring of 2022 alone, there were evacuations in First Nations communities in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. A recent University of Waterlooo study identified 40 flood risk hotspots among 360 Indigenous communities across Canada.

In Ontario, conservation authorities, local municipalities and Indigenous communities have been motivated to assess and establish accurate regional flood plain maps and invest in ongoing emergency preparedness planning. Flood plain mapping allows communities to take a proactive approach to flooding by reducing development in high-risk areas and establishing emergency protocols for high water level events.  

First Adapt

The Canadian First Nation Adapt program, established in 2016, provides financial support for Indigenous communities to complete risk assessments of climate change impacts on community infrastructure or emergency management. 

These Indigenous-led partnership projects honor the value and importance of inclusion and involvement of local communities in the environmental monitoring and risk assessment process.

First Nations have expressed concern about actions that may influence title claims, as well as health and economic well-being through impacts to drinking water, hunting, fishing, recreation and tourism. Furthermore, watersheds may be important hunting grounds and essential to archival and oral traditions, history, knowledge and identity. Thus, the involvement and leadership of Indigenous communities in these projects is of paramount importance.

Maps and Education

Over the past two years, a partnership between Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Green Communities Canada, Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, Cambium Indigenous Professional Services, Conservation Ontario and Canadian Environmental Law Association developed new flood plain maps and flood plain education for First Nations along the banks of Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River).  

The flood plain mapping and education project was made possible with funding from the First Nation Adapt program and delivered with involvement from Oneida First Nation of the Thames, Munsee-Delaware Nation and the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown. This project followed another successful one in the region: the shared waters approach management plan developed through the Thames River Clear Water Revival Project.

turtle island gould

Turtle Island. Credit: Louretta Gould

The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation flood plain mapping project was an Indigenous-led conservation project at its heart, which combined technical knowledge and skills with the rich Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) available within the local First Nation communities. The project also aimed to provide community education and education for First Nations and environmental practitioners looking for positive partnership models beyond these regions.

In 2021, five community workshops were organized to share the results of ongoing monitoring of water levels and flows and gather feedback and share important perspectives from the Chippewas, Oneida, Moraviantown and Munsee Nations who live along Deshkan Ziibi (Thames River).  

This year, learnings from this project were shared more broadly through a five-part online webinar series.

Each session began and ended with time for traditional acknowledgements, songs and teachings, and infused local community perspectives with technical developments in the flood plain mapping project. More than 500 attendees, including members of Indigenous communities and environmental professionals, were able to ask questions and learn about developing their own flood plain mapping projects, successful protocols and effective partnership approaches.

While the climate risks to Indigenous communities in remote and flood-vulnerable locations continues to increase, projects such as these provide a meaningful opportunity to build local capacity and resiliency in the event of an emergency by illuminating areas of focus for future stewardship actions. And more importantly, they reinforce the value and importance of partnership models that engage in research with, and alongside, instead of for Indigenous communities.

Emily Amon
Green Communities Canada

Emily Amon is the water programs lead at Green Communities Canada and holds a master’s degree in sustainability studies from Trent University.