PUBLISHED: 08 September 2023

Flood Mitigation: Ecosystem Management

What is ecosystem management?

Ecosystem management is an integrated approach to managing the health and diversity of natural systems to ensure the continuation of ecosystem goods and services for societal needs [i]. Ecosystem goods and services are functions an ecosystem provides that are necessary for human growth and success. Some examples of these ecosystem goods and services include clean air, water, and soil. Ecosystem management is a science-based approach that accounts for different ecosystem uses of air, land, and water by humans, while at the same time ensuring the health, resiliency, and longevity of the ecosystem. Currently, water systems globally are stressed and continue to face increased pressure from development and human activity. To address this issue, ecosystem management creates a more holistic and integrated approach that takes into account elements needed to ensure healthy ecosystems and societies.

How does this option help to mitigate the impacts of a flood?

Ecosystem management helps to mitigate flooding in ways that are significantly different than engineered structures, such as dams. Ecosystem management utilizes natural systems, such a reforestation, designated riparian zones, and restoration of wetlands, to mitigate against the damaging impacts of a flood. Natural solutions have the ability to slow down flood flows and retain flood waters in natural areas such as forests, wetlands, and floodplains [ii]. Furthermore, the restoration of natural ecosystems has many positive feedback loops, including climate stabilization, habitat restoration, and carbon and nitrogen storage [iii].

Is ecosystem management already being done in Canada?

Yes. In the Prairies, for example, there is considerable interest in ecosystem management and growing evidence for the effectiveness of the approach [iv]. In New Brunswick, ecosystem restoration is underway in the St. John River Watershed with, amongst other aims, the aim of achieving greater flood resilience [v].

After the June 2013 floods in southern Alberta, the idea of ecosystem management has shed light on alternative methods of flood mitigation. While ecosystem management has been discussed and implemented throughout the province and in specific sectors, application of this approach specifically for flood management is being considered [vi].

What level of government is responsible?

To fully implement ecosystem management practices, there must be cooperation and collaboration between all orders of government. Specifically, most current ecosystem management policies are administered at the provincial and territorial orders of government. Interjurisdictional work is also underway, with coordinated work on various guidance documents being issued by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment [vii].

Does ecosystem management account for differences between jurisdictions?

Yes, the main feature of ecosystem management is that different regions and jurisdictions are addressed for their unique ecosystems. For example, the land-use framework implemented by the Government of Alberta attempts to create a new approach for managing Alberta’s natural resources to achieve greater social, economic, and environmental well-being [viii]. Within the framework, Alberta is divided into seven regions, based on local watersheds, where land-use issues such as those related to water are addressed.

What is the scale and boundary of ecosystem management?

Ecosystem management at the provincial or territorial level of government is administered within the province and addresses all regions. Ecosystem management can also be applied at the local level through municipalities, communities, businesses, and individuals to address specific areas of concern.

What are the effects on the surrounding environment and watershed?

Around the world, ecosystem management has a direct positive impact on the surrounding environment and watershed. As noted in the United Nations’ “Framework for freshwater ecosystem management” [ix] Volume 1 (pp.2-3), ecosystem management also directly and indirectly supports many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Would ecosystem management help in a drought?

Yes. In drought conditions, ecosystem management would help to manage land-use practices, ensure the ecosystem is protected, and safeguard natural resources such as water from being degraded. Managing the conditions that lead to drought and desertification could limit the extent of the damage caused by drought. Further, appropriate ecosystem management policies can monitor and incentivize behaviours which enhance long term resilience and sustainability [x].


[i] Kappel, C.V., 2011, Ecosystem-based management. The Encyclopedia of Earth. Accessed 2023-05-08.

[ii] Nilsson, C., et al, 2018, Ecological Restoration as a Means of Managing Inland Flood Hazards. Accessed 2023-05-08.  BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 2, February 2018, Pages 89–99,

[iii] European Environment Agency, 2016, Flood risks and environmental vulnerability: exploring the synergies between floodplain restoration, water policies and thematic policies. Accessed 2023-05-08.

[iv] Pattison-Williams, J.K. et al, 2018, Wetlands, Flood Control and Ecosystem Services in the Smith Creek Drainage Basin: A Case Study in Saskatchewan, Canada. Accessed 2023+-05-08. Ecological Economics, 147, pp. 36-47.

[v] RSA Group, n.d., WWF-Canada: Collaborating For Climate Resilient Communities. Accessed 2023-05-08.

[vi] The Resilience Institute, n.d., Flood Adaptation: good practices for southern Alberta. Accessed 2023-05-08.

[vii] Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. Accessed 2023-05-09.

[viii] Alberta Land Use Secretariat, n.d., Land-Use Framework. Accessed 2023-05-09.

[ix] United Nations Environment Programme, 2017, A framework for freshwater Ecosystem Management. Accessed 2023-05-09.

[x] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2022, The State Of The World’s Land And Water Resources For Food and Agriculture 2021: Systems at breaking point. Accessed 2023-05-09.