This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 15, 2018.
The scenes last year of widespread flooding in Quebec, the Ottawa region and then the "500-year flood" in Houston were stark reminders of the risks – and massive human and physical costs – of these natural disasters.
Up to 10 per cent of Canadians live in high-risk flood zones. They live in floodplains, urban areas with inadequate storm-water drainage or in low-lying coastal areas subject to saltwater inundation.
Mapping of flood risk in Canada is inconsistent and may not be widely available. Many property owners have chosen to live or work in these areas based on inadequate and incomplete historical information. While mapping is improving today with more sophisticated technology, risk mapping and flood-risk information are not managed or distributed under an integrated system.
How is flood-risk managed? Today, it is a combination of public-, private- and personal-risk management. This is still a nascent market for insurers, who have begun to offer flood coverage in Canada over the past two years. Properties in high-risk flood zones are very difficult to insure because of the exceptional risk and, if coverage is available at all, the premiums are usually very expensive as a result.
The perceived availability of disaster relief – de facto free insurance coverage – may deter at-risk property owners from seeking flood insurance in advance. And flood risk is poorly understood by the general public – in a recent survey by the University of Waterloo, only 6 per cent of Canadians surveyed were aware they live in a designated flood-risk area.
Moreover, extreme weather related to climate change appears to be increasing the frequency and severity of flooding events. This trend has enlarged existing flood zones and even created new flood-prone areas previously thought to be risk-free. It is hard to ignore the growing relationship between climate change and the resulting impact of severe flooding events.
There is no easy fix for destruction and damage from flooding. The responsibility and incentives for managing property development and for reducing flood risks are not well aligned. There are differences in property-development management practices between, and even within, provinces. Local governments approve property development, and receive development fees and property taxes. But they do not always assume responsibility for land-use planning nor do they bear the full costs of flood relief.
All orders of government incur costs during immediate disaster response. Canadian government spending on floods and recovery have increased dramatically since 2000, reaching a high of $2-billion in 2013-14. Flood-recovery costs have been projected by the Parliamentary Budget Office to remain high for the federal government, at $700-million annually.
In short, Canada's system for managing flood risk is a patchwork, a legacy built up over time. So where to start improving the flood-risk management system? A number of critical elements ought to be addressed:
Risk identification and awareness
There is a vital need to raise the "flood-risk IQ" of Canadians through education and regular communication on flood risk. A collaborative framework might include a formal program of public education on the risk and costs of flooding, and how it could be better managed.
Risk reduction and mitigation
Policy measures that could be designed and implemented in advance include:
- Comprehensive mapping and information-sharing;
- Improved land-use planning and building codes;
- Investment in flood-prevention infrastructure;
- Mitigation by communities and property owners.
It should be emphasized that risk-reduction measures are a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for improved flood management. Even if all the elements of risk reduction identified here are acted upon, some existing properties in flood zones will remain at risk.
Although the insurance industry is increasing its capacity to provide flood coverage, coverage is uneven and properties in high-risk flood zones are difficult and expensive to insure. A public-private risk-sharing partnership (as has been developed in other countries) that draws on the strengths of all parties will likely be required to improve overall Canadian flood-risk management, while also improving incentives for property owners to mitigate their own specific flood risks. A U.S.-style system, in which the government provides the high-risk flood coverage, but under-funds evenutal liabilities, should be avoided, however.
Disaster management and recovery
It is reasonable to expect Canadian governments to aspire to best-in-class practice for managing disasters, as is the case in many areas of public policy. The ideal goal could be to build a co-ordinated and integrated pan-Canadian response and recovery plan for floods and other potential disasters.
A national conversation on improved flood management has begun among Canadian governments, the insurance industry, academics and think tanks and other stakeholders. This conversation is an important starting point, but much more analysis, discussion, concrete decisions and action will be required if Canada is to reduce the risks and improve the management of flooding.