In 2019, Halifax joined nearly 500 Canadian municipalities by declaring a state of climate emergency. Climate change poses significant risks to the coast of Nova Scotia, and in Halifax, climate change effects threaten the historical harbour, a landmark of the region. With projected rising temperatures, Halifax will experience more severe storms and storm surges, increased precipitation, flooding events, wildfires, and sea-level rise (Sustainability Solutions Group [SSG], 2020), resulting in coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion into inland areas and aquifers.
Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) is a city of approximately 450,000 residents, as per 2020 estimates (Statistics Canada, 2021), and is located in the province of Nova Scotia, on the East Coast in Atlantic Canada. HRM is in the traditional and ancestral lands of Mi’kma’ki and the Mi’kmaq people, with the greater Nova Scotia the traditional territory of the Wabanaki people (which includes the Mi’Kmaq Nation). Prior to European contact, the Wabanaki people lived and governed the Mi’kma’ki region, which encompasses Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, the Gaspé Peninsula and the majority of New Brunswick (Native Land, 2021).
The HRM is within the Atlantic Maritime ecozone, the warmest ecozone in Atlantic Canada (Natural Resources Canada, 2019). The HRM extends into the Eastern Interior ecodistrict, which has a relatively low topography with a mean elevation of 95 m above sea level and the highest summit reaching 220 m (Neily, et al., 2017). Forests in this ecodistrict generally are mixed stands of red spruce and balsam fir conifers, and yellow birch and sugar maple deciduous species, and the area has the second-highest proportion of provincial peatland area of any ecodistrict in Nova Scotia (Neily, et al., 2017). The ecodistrict has over 1,000 lakes and more than 20 rivers, and HRM covers three major watersheds (the Tangier Rivers, the Musquodoboit River, and the Sackville River watersheds), which support Atlantic salmon and is the primary source of freshwater to the Halifax Harbour (Brunner, 2010).
As the “hub city” for the Atlantic region, Halifax Harbour plays a significant historical and economic role for naval operations, shipbuilding, shipping, and other port-related industries. Economically important industries in rural Halifax include tourism, agriculture, and natural resource operations, such as forestry, mining, and fishing (Halifax Regional Municipality, 2014).
Potential and existing disruptions to regional water security
Drinking water and Human well-being. In 2020, the HRM released HalifACT 2050, a comprehensive climate action plan to address existing and predicted future threats of climate change. Reduced water quality and quantity is one of many climate hazards the population of Halifax faces as a result of climate change, and concerns include ensuring a reliable source of fresh water during emergencies. The HalifACT plan provides specific actions, targets, objectives, and timelines for completion of efforts toward water-related goals, with aims to achieve these goals before 2050. Future-proofing the Halifax water infrastructure systems and supplies are listed as primary objectives of the plan to be initiated in the next 4-5 years, and targets include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in wastewater operations by 2030.
Eco-systems. Threats to biodiversity and ecosystem resilience are presented in the HalifACT 2050 plan as important issues to consider and address (SSG, 2020). Coastal ecosystems such as wetlands and marshes are especially at risk of being impacted by climate change and sea-level rise. Municipal plans aim to restrict encroachments on vulnerable infrastructure as well as sensitive aquatic ecosystems, thereby simultaneously strengthening these ecosystems’ storm-buffering capabilities and lessening the impacts of erosion by storm inundation (O2, 2015). There are already successful examples of engineered approaches for addressing major wastewater pollution, and protecting the HRM’s waterways and ecosystems. In 2011, the largest municipal infrastructure project ever conducted in Atlantic Canada was completed. Three engineered major sewage treatment plants now divert what was previously 180 million litres of untreated wastewater released daily into the Halifax Harbour (Stantec, 2021). The Harbour’s ecosystem is now healthy enough that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has deemed it safe for shellfish harvesting (CBC News, 2011).
Water-related hazards and climate change. Halifax’s tide gauge and GPS data have shown that sea levels are rising more quickly on the East coast than other coastal regions of Canada. The East Coast region of Canada is gradually sinking due to glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA), with Halifax sinking at about -1 mm per year. The median sea-level rise of a high-emissions scenario based on information contained in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report projects Atlantic Canada experiencing a rise of 75-100 cm by 2100 (Lemmen et al., 2016).
Between 1976 and 2005, the HRM has received mean annual precipitation of 1440 mm, with the hottest summer days reaching (on average) 29.6°C, and the coldest winter days reaching -21.3°C. Climate change projections for Halifax estimate that in 2051-2080, mean annual precipitation will increase to 1571 mm, the hottest summer days will increase to 33.6°C, and the coldest winter days will increase to -14.6°C (SSG, 2020). These changes carry a number of associated risks, including stresses on agriculture and food systems, the ability of farmers to grow food cost-effectively, and the loss of agricultural land and fishing harbours. Currently, only 15.4% of the HRM region has agriculturally productive soils (O2, 2015). In Nova Scotia, 246 farms irrigated 2,580 hectares. As the cost of agricultural inputs rises, so does the cost of food, contributing to food insecurity which particularly impacts socioeconomically marginalized and vulnerable groups.
Economic Activities and Development. In 2016, agriculture, forestry and fishing contributed 1.2 billion to Nova Scotia’s GDP; 61% of the province’s total GDP was from fishing, hunting and trapping, 34% from agriculture, and 5% was from forestry and logging (Statistics Canada, 2021). Climate change impacts to agriculture, fisheries, and forestry industries will exert economic pressures on the population of Halifax, as well as lead to economic costs due to damages to physical infrastructure such as buildings, roads, communications infrastructure, and wastewater treatment plants (SSG, 2020). The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that within 20 years, under the high climate change scenario, a climate-related storm surge resulting in flood impacts will have an estimated direct and secondary gross domestic product impact increasing from $400 thousand today to $3.1 million in 2040 as a result of storm surges occurring more frequently and with greater flood depths (IBC, 2016).
Current initiatives and efforts
HalifACT adopted in 2020 by the Halifax Regional Council, is a community plan in response to the climate crisis, including a commitment to a net-zero community by 2050.
Municipal Climate Change Action Plans (MCCAPs) are encouraged by the Government of Nova Scotia, encouraging communities to develop their MCCAPs to document their efforts toward climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Climate SMART is a Sustainable Mitigation & Adaptation Risk Toolkit designed to help mainstream climate change mitigation and adaptation into municipal planning and decision making.
Regional Municipal Planning Strategy was adopted by the HRM Council in 2006, as an integrated land use planning guide for future development addressing climate change impacts.
- Reduce GHG emissions by retrofitting existing corporate and residential buildings, and transitioning to renewable energy and low carbon-emitting transportation.
- Ensure safe and high-quality fresh water to support Nova Scotia’s resource-based industries including fishing and agriculture that rely on a healthy supply of water.
- Maintain potable water for the HRM and surrounding areas, minimizing contamination of wells and septic systems, through infrastructure upgrades and groundwater level maintenance.
- Prepare for loss of agricultural land and access to local food, rising foods costs, and food insecurity.
- Prepare for coastal emergencies and implement long-term infrastructure planning for rising sea levels.
Future priorities and plans
HRM’s HalifACT 2050 plan includes actions for meeting local climate action goals by 2050. Actions with relevance to water issues are presented here (taken directly from the plan), and are grouped into themes:
Decarbonized and Resilient Infrastructure from HalifACT 2050
- Integrate climate into land use planning policies and processes
- Planning strategies that emphasize green spaces, urban forests, and community spaces that further reduce urban heat island effects and improve the environmental health of communities.
- Adopt a commitment and develop a detailed plan to achieve net-zero water and wastewater operations by 2030
- Develop a holistic, integrated, and climate-informed stormwater management plan and program
- Develop a holistic, integrated, and climate-informed water supply strategy
- Coastal Preparedness:
- Conduct a detailed spatially-based risk and vulnerability analysis of Halifax’s coastal, waterfront, and shoreline area
- Develop a coastal-specific adaptation strategy with coastal communities
Prepared and Connected Communities from HalifACT 2050
- Develop climate event evacuation plans: flooding, wildfire and coastal storm surge
- Improve emergency management communication and coordination across EMO agencies and organizations
- Improve food security and food systems resilience, the target being to create and implement a Food Action Plan, and include climate change as a core component