Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy is Missing This

Canada deserves praise for being one of the first countries to create a “National Adaptation Strategy”, but it is incomplete.

Canadian Moose

The Strategy is intended to build resilient communities and a strong economy in the face of extreme weather events caused by climate change, but the Strategy is missing an important linchpin that is inexpensive yet effective to achieve its goals. What is missing in the National Adaptation Strategy is the restoration of natural habitats. They have ecosystems that already provide a protective service from the effects of extreme weather events, but to be resilient there needs to be an ongoing contiguous network that is mapped out, and that is physically and legally protected.  

Restoration and protection of natural habitats 

Natural habitats recovery works best when Nature takes the lead with little human interference, especially when there is some of the original habitat left. It’s an attractive option since the financial and preparation expenditures are minimal and it provides quick results.  Simply put, aside from ensuring there is adequate signage and fencing to identify the protected habitat; most of the cost would be for the enforcement of the protection from squatters, loggers, miners, and developers, etc. Without proper funding for enforcement of the protection of the natural habitat that is set aside for Nature’s use on an initial and ongoing basis, the goal will not be achieved.  This has been a big problem in existing parks where the protection has not been enforced.

Enforcement was absent when I visited the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico a few years ago.  Although it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 with an impressive 560 km² area, what I saw was a small area of a couple of square kilometres at the top of one of the peaks that had some sick-looking trees for the overwintering North American monarch butterflies surrounded by farms. 

What happened is that over the years there has been extensive encroachment into the Biosphere Reserve. The forest within the Reserve has been mostly cut down by illegal loggers for fuel, housing, and money, and then the cleared land is farmed by squatters. Clearly, the reserve’s protection has not been enforced, and the theft will continue until there is nothing left to take, and nothing left for the overwintering monarch butterflies, for whom the Reserve was created in the first place. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. Without human protection that is enforced, Nature doesn’t have a chance of recovery, or survival.

I am, however, heartened from what I’ve seen in Cuba, and how preserving the island’s natural protection against hurricanes and coastal erosion have effectively protected their tourism industry, and infrastructures. Costly repairs have been averted by allowing its mangrove mangals, and sea grass meadows to flourish.

In 2017, Cuba’s popular tourist destinations, Cayo Maria, and Cayo Coco, were hit by Hurricane Irma, a category 5 hurricane that went on to devastate Haiti.  The difference between the two countries was that in Cuba, the damage was manageable. Why?  Because Cuba has mangrove mangals.  

The service the mangrove forest provided against Irma was clearly evident on the 48 km causeway connecting Cuba to Cayo Maria. It is a critical tourist infrastructure that is surrounded by the mangrove forest, but not completely.  Only the exposed sections of the causeway were damaged by Irma, and had to be repaired.  The repair was manageable, and work was completed before the start of their high season. The mangrove forest is so effective at immunizing the wind that a nature guide in Orlando, Florida said that when a hurricane came, people used to go there for shelter. There, it was so calm during the hurricane that you could hold a cup on a saucer, and it wouldn’t budge.

Cuba’s beautiful beach shoreline found an unexpected protector in the COVID19 pandemic when many of the hotels were shut down, and those that were open were at reduced capacity. The absence of tourists allowed the sea grass to flourish. The sea grass grows in depths of water that covers its erect leaves at low tide, which is about twelve inches.  Since Cuba’s beaches are shallow, the sea grass grows at some distance from the shoreline.

This November, I could clearly see the benefits to the beach where there was a large established section of sea grass, or  meadow, compared to beaches where there was none.

Where the beach had a sea grass meadow of about 100 m in length going out towards the ocean, it was essentially a buffer from the force of the waves.  The beach was undisturbed by the high tide, and the sand ridges under the water towards the shoreline were very shallow and hardly noticeable; whereas the beaches without the sea grass meadow had no buffer and they continued to have an extended high tide line that deeply cut into the sandy beach up to their umbrellas that were perched atop a step higher than the high tide line. The contrast between the presence and absence of the sea grass was clearly evident. The best part is that it took two years of non-interference for the sea grass to be established, and protect Cuba’s economically valuable shoreline. Sea grass meadows are also a valued carbon sink.

However, a new threat to the sea grass is the surf-gliders that have a long carbon fibre rudder that cuts up the sea grass, as well as causing harm to the fish, and sea birds. 

Contiguous connection of the protected habitats

To ensure a healthy population in the wildlife protected habitat, there needs to be safe corridors to connect the protected areas so that they are not isolated. The protected habitats can also be expanded at a later date.

Mapped and Legally Defensible

It’s good that the Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Steven Guilbeault, consulted with the different levels of government, including provincial, territorial, and municipal since they need to be on side if the plan will be implemented successfully.  They are also at the front lines when dealing with flooding, wildfires, drought, and severe storms that damage or destroy their infrastructures.

However, it is important for Minister Guilbeault to formally commit to the protected habitats and corridors by ensuring their protection and that they are clearly mapped, and are legally defensible. Existing carbon sinks like the urban forests of Toronto, Montreal, and other cities need to have their service recognized and protected. The provincial governments would spend less money on health care that would also free up capacity if there was a reduction in respiratory and mental health illnesses.  Every level of government would see a reduction in climate related expenditures by supporting this initiative.

What is very important is to map these protected wildlife habitat reserves across Canada so that everybody knows where they are, and they are protected by law. All levels of government and all Canadians would benefit from restoring wildlife habitat. It is the fastest and best way to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. All that we are waiting for is a commitment to do so.

It’s encouraging that Canada’s National Adaption Strategy has made a great start by looking at how to make Canada resilient in the face of the complexity of so many threats brought on by the climate crisis, but by adding the protection of existing wildlife habitats, this will fill in the gaps of the dangers we cannot foresee. 

Sharolyn Mathieu Vettese


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