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Building a Climate-Resilient City: Disaster preparedness and emergency management

This policy brief looks at disaster preparedness and emergency management measures that cities can use to build their resilience to climate change impacts.
Multiple Authors
Abdullah Aldawsari


Climate change impacts involve threats and costs touching on all aspects of contemporary municipal life, and many of its effects on urban environments have yet to be effectively quantified. These growing climate risks have clear implications for local economies and the financial well-being of municipal governments. Well-planned adaptation measures can improve the quality of urban life as well as protect lives and infrastructure, strengthen community ties and improve economic performance.

The Building a Climate-Resilient City series was prepared for the City of Edmonton and the City of Calgary by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in collaboration with the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre. This series makes recommendations for steps that cities can take as part of their municipal adaptation planning to build their resilience to climate change. It explores three key principles of resilience building: robustness (strong design), redundancy (building extra capacity into systems to act as fail-safe networks) and resourcefulness (citizen empowerment).

This policy brief* examines the potential implications of climate change for disaster preparedness and emergency management in Alberta’s cities, and presents options by which the resilience of these systems may be enhanced.

*The text below provides the key messages and recommendations from the brief and summarises some of the factors that can support the building of climate-resilient cities. See the full text for much more detail.

Lessons Learnt

  • Projections for more intense and frequent extreme weather events need to be integrated with disaster and emergency management planning.
  • Contingencies for spare capacity and flexibility to deal with climate hazards occurring simultaneously or in quick succession need to feature in disaster and emergency management planning.
  • Strategic investments in disaster prevention measures, including climate-resilient green infrastructure and updated building codes, will provide significant long-term cost savings and social benefits.
  • Continuous outreach and engagement processes can ensure that citizens prepare for and can respond to climate-related disasters.

Implications of Changing Climate Related Risks

Albertans are familiar with the impacts of extreme weather events, and resourceful emergency response systems have enabled them to respond effectively to these events. For example, the 2013 flood in southern Alberta caused extensive damage to Calgary and other centres. However, well-executed municipal emergency management plans, in combination with very high rates of civic volunteerism and effective upstream management of the Bow watershed, enabled Calgary to be on its feet again in time for the annual Stampede just weeks after the 2013 flood.

However, in municipalities across Canada, planning for extreme weather events has typically been based on the assumption that past climatic patterns will continue into the future. Municipalities often build their infrastructure and calculate risk based on historical return rates, such as the concept of a one-in-100-year flood. Climate change, though, is making the climate system less predictable and more variable. It is changing the frequency and severity of disasters, and therefore altering the definition of what constitutes a 100-year flood event.

A further concern for emergency planners is the risk climate change poses for the infrastructure they rely upon to transport equipment, store food and fuel, and house people displaced by disasters. Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation regimes will influence the weathering and erosion rate of infrastructure, reducing its lifespan and degrading its tolerance to environmental stresses. A greater number of increasingly more intense weather events will enhance the likelihood that infrastructure may be damaged or face catastrophic loss, thereby affecting the ability of disaster managers to effectively respond to emergency situations. Additional infrastructure may be needed to ensure continued delivery of emergency services.

Cities may also be increasingly affected by climate-related disasters in the smaller communities that surround them. In times of crises these cities play a role in providing equipment and aid to neighbouring communities. As the frequency of extreme events increases across the province, these cities may experience greater demands for support not only from their own citizens but also from people displaced from homes in other parts of Alberta. Through dedicated measures, municipal governments can take steps to build their capacity to manage the growing potential for extreme weather events as the climate changes. These interventions may focus on enhancing three of the qualities of resilient cities:

  • Building Robustness: A key step to building more climate-robust disaster preparedness and emergency management systems is purposefully and systematically integrating consideration of how climate change may affect future hazard risks when assessing and updating strategies and plans. This will help identify strategies to either eliminate or lessen the severity of economic and personal losses caused by climate events before they occur. A forward-looking approach is increasingly needed to account for changes in the probability of hazards occurring and the potential emergence of new risks. Anticipatory disaster risk management and a focus on managing the processes that create risk—rather than reactive responses and a focus on managing events— becomes more important as the climate system becomes more variable and less predictable.

  • Promoting Redundancy: Incorporating greater flexibility or spare capacity into disaster preparedness and emergency management systems can help cities meet the anticipated challenges of climate change. Building greater redundancy into emergency management systems could better enable them to effectively manage multiple hazards occurring simultaneously or in short succession, as well as more quickly adapt to changing events.

  • Encouraging Resourcefulness:Enhancing the capacity of citizens to effectively engage in disaster preparedness and emergency management is key to building a disaster resilient city. Citizens need to be aware of their responsibility to take individual actions to prepare for emergencies and to proactively participate in collective responses to maintaining the safety of their neighbours and community.

How Canada is and could be building robustness, promoting redundancy and encouraging resourcefulness in urban agriculture and food security is discussed in much more detail in the brief. To read more about applying the above principles to agriculture and food security in an urban resilience-building context, please refer to the full text.


While Calgary and Edmonton have effectively managed past events, they are also incorporating lessons learned to further strengthen their capacity to minimize risks and manage future events. Calgary, for example, has integrated lessons from the 2013 flood across the city and surrounding areas, and plans to implement a combination of structural and non-structural measures to provide sufficient flood protection on both the Bow and Elbow rivers. Similarly, Edmonton is continually expanding its storm readiness plans by promoting the installation of residential backwater valves.

Calgary and Edmonton could consider undertaking the following measures to further strengthen their resilience to a more variable and uncertain climate:


  • Use available climate scenarios to develop disaster risk scenarios that can inform revisions and updates to emergency plans and disaster management practices and ensure that they are no longer based exclusively on an assumption that the climate of the past will continue into the future.
  • Provide professional development opportunities to increase municipal emergency planners’ awareness of the potential consequences of shifts in climate extremes for disaster risk management.
  • Invest in building the climate resilience of infrastructure, such as transportation, communication, energy and water systems, to decrease the vulnerability of disaster response systems during times of crisis.
  • Engage all levels of government in disaster preparedness and emergency management efforts to ensure coordinated responses and the strategic and timely provision of financial assistance to priority needs.


  • Leverage city permit processes to restrict development in areas, such as flood plains, anticipated to be at increasing risk due to climate change or where insurance against climate-related hazards is no longer available.
  • Integrate guidelines into city planning to ensure that new development, redevelopment or replacement of infrastructure integrates and enhances natural landscapes and green infrastructure.
  • Consider development limitations and bylaw enforcement mechanisms within the regulatory regime to ensure the protection of natural spaces that provide both natural hazard protection and health benefits.
  • Expand the number of publicly available spaces designated as emergency cooling shelters during times of excessive heat (e.g., shopping malls, libraries and community centres).

Economic Instruments

  • Incorporate the economic benefits of ecosystem services provided by, for example, urban forests, natural riparian zones and parks, into cost-benefit assessments to encourage the retention and expansion of urban ecosystems.
  • Promote the provision of tax incentives to registered emergency management and disaster preparedness volunteers similar to the tax credit offered to volunteer firefighters.
  • Recognize that disaster loss estimates are often inconsistent and therefore tend to underestimate the potential negative economic and social consequences of a disaster.

Voluntary/Community Linkages

  • Strengthen public education campaigns to increase the likelihood that citizens will keep emergency preparedness kits in their homes.
  • Engage communities in developing neighbourhood evacuation and disaster preparedness plans.
  • Provide first-aid and disaster scenario training to increase the pool of trained volunteers that can be called on in emergency situations.

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