All 10 Canadian provinces and Yukon are not making the grade when it comes to flood preparedness, signalling the need for change, including not allowing municipalities to override provincial or territorial direction on development in flood-prone areas, argues a new report from the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.
Flood preparedness is simply not where it could be, contends Climate Change and the Preparedness of Canadian Provinces and Yukon to Limit Potential Flood Damage, demanding forward-thinking approaches and immediate preventive measures.
Released Monday, the report notes that such measures include mandating the restriction of new development in flood-prone areas and rebuilding infrastructure to future-projected flood risk, notes a statement from the university.
“Municipalities should not be able to override direction from the provinces or Yukon that restricts development in flood-prone areas, or that mandates flood-resilient design,” one of the report’s recommendations points out.
Overall, the research shows the 10 provinces and Yukon achieved an average flood preparedness score of C-. “This score suggests that there is a considerable margin for Canada to better prepare for, and potentially mitigate, future flood risk.”
“The financial and social costs to Canadians will mount if preparedness to extreme weather events, and in particular flooding, continues to receive limited attention,” Blair Feltmate, who heads the centre and is a professor in the university’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, notes in the statement.
“The federal government spent more on recovering from large-scale natural disasters over the past six years than in the previous 39 years combined,” states the report, citing a 2016 report from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
“The extent to which Canada is prepared to address climate-related risks, including severe floods, will define its long-term competitiveness,” it cautions.
Based on a survey of 103 government representatives across 91 provincial and territorial ministries, departments and agencies, the report explores the preparedness of the provinces and Yukon (Northwest Territories and Nunavut are not covered in this report) to limit flood damage relative to current and future (2030) major rainfall events.
The 12 categories of assessment areas are flood plain mapping, land-use planning, drainage maintenance, sustainable flood management, home adaptation audit, commercial property adaptation audit, transportation systems, electricity supply, drinking water systems, wastewater systems, public health and safety, and emergency preparedness and response.
Using a scale from A (strong flood preparedness) to E (weak flood preparedness), “there is considerable opportunity to limit future flood risk,” the statement adds.
The barely passable C- grade was not consistent across all assessment categories.
Not so positive was the performance with regard to engagement with home and commercial property owners to identify and mitigate flood risks.
Respondents further “often expressed frustration with municipalities that frequently override direction from the provinces to limit new development in flood-prone areas, thus putting homes and businesses at risk,” the university statement notes.
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Reflecting survey feedback, the following immediate actions by the provinces and Yukon to improve flood preparedness are recommended:
- Create the position of chief adaptation officer (CAO) for each province and territory. Directly accountable to the premier, the CAO would identify areas of strength and weakness related to flood preparedness and risk mitigation actions. “Recognizing that flooding affects all sectors of society, the dedicated expertise of CAOs would be integral to maintaining the continuity of operations across provinces and territories in light of increasingly challenging extreme weather.”
- For the 12 categories of flood preparedness, CAOs would be charged with ensuring flood risk preparedness is deployed, independent of whether the category is a direct-line responsibility of the province or territory. They would “facilitate efforts to ensure that parties responsible for a particular risk act with prudence to limit exposure.”
- Issue audited public reports on the 12 categories of assessment, documenting the state of flood preparedness and any areas of challenge that may evolve, on a multi-year cycle, perhaps every five years.
- Rebuild infrastructure to meet new and future-projected flood risks where practically and actuarially cost-effective. “Participants noted that often there are funding restrictions for flood repairs post-disaster that prohibit incorporation of resiliency measures and a higher level of protection than what was present historically.”
- Provinces and territories should mandate the restriction of new development in flood-prone areas, or at a minimum, that developments be made flood-resilient. “It is unconscionable that developments are continuing in recognized flood zone, with limited flood mitigation controls in cities across Canada.”
On the last point, “in the absence of land-use planning that better addresses flood risk, federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement (DFAA) assistance to provinces and territories should be limited,” the report states.
“Similarly, property and casualty insurers may limit insurance coverage relative to foreseeable high flood risk,” it adds.
Land-use planning – generally, municipal governments maintain responsibility and authority for planning development of all private lands within their boundaries – “is one of the most effective processes to minimize flood risks to municipalities and rural communities,” the report maintains.
Still, “some participants noted municipal councils have significant power to override their own land-use restriction bylaws to approve new developments, even if the developments are in recognized flood-prone areas.”
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Decidedly more positive was the finding that the provinces and Yukon were “doing relatively well in ensuring public health and safety by maintaining the capacity of hospitals and public health units to support the continuity of service delivery during floods,” the university statement notes.
As well, high scores were received for emergency preparedness, “as the provinces and Yukon work with local authorities and community leaders to identify and prepare for flood vulnerabilities,” it adds.
Other findings and respondent observations in the report include the following:
- respondents noted the cumulative effects of human activities within riparian areas – land adjacent to streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands, which are often flooded – significantly increase the magnitude of flood losses, and more stringent regulations across all levels of government are needed to protect them;
- significant changes to forest lands – including excessive logging and conversion into other land-use types – impact run-off and accelerate the erosion process, while fragmentation of forests has an impact on downstream flooding;
- respondents indicated conversion of forest to agricultural land uses remains the largest cause of deforestation in Canada;
- respondents noted areas upstream and downstream of rivers must work together to tackle future flood risk, necessitating a shift from site-based to watershed-wide solutions;
- some respondents pointed out that the clogging of the drainage pipes, culverts and ditches by debris and fine-grade soil is one of the most important maintenance issues in the current draining systems, and needs additional attention;
- some respondents indicated more funding should be provided for infrastructure upgrades that consider climate resilience; and
- some respondents pointed out the range of local authority responses can vary dramatically, depending on the severity of a flooding event and the resources available within the local authority.
Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation and a professor at the University of Waterloo
Noting that premiers are showing leadership on carbon pricing, there is a need to “build upon this commitment by embracing adaptation to address extreme weather and flooding with equal enthusiasm,” Feltmate (pictured right) emphasizes.
“Recognizing that climate change and extreme flood potential will continue unabated across Canada, the provinces and territories should immediately address (the five recommendations) to avoid otherwise inevitable and irreversible financial and social strife,” the report warns.
“The risks of the past are not the risks of the present, and certainly not the risks of the future,” it concludes.