Canada is a world leader at response to natural disasters. After the recent flooding in Calgary, the mayor of the city, the Premier of the province and the Prime Minister of Canada were all highly visible, while the Canadian Forces came to do their part. Premier Alison Redford promised that all flood losses will be compensated dollar for dollar – welcome news to those whose homes were damaged by flood waters. But compared to other countries, Canada lags in the mitigation of natural disasters. Our warm hearts have yet to be complemented by some necessary hard-headed thinking.
Let’s think about flooding. Yes, floods are caused by bad weather – in this case, heavy rains combined with late snow melt. And maybe rainfalls in Canada are becoming more extreme because of climate change. But the economic damage from floods is also heavily influenced by human choices. There is no law of nature forcing people to build homes on river banks and flood plains that are bound to be inundated sooner or later.
We cannot relocate all the cities that have been built along rivers or on coastlines. But effective disaster mitigation would mean gradually encouraging people to move homes and business out of areas most at risk.
Here is where Canadian policy lags. The Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements require Ottawa to pay 90 per cent of disaster relief costs over $5 per capita of provincial population, a very low threshold. Five dollars per capita in Alberta is about $18-million – about the cost of a new high school. Estimates of damages from the current flooding in Alberta run as high as $5-billion. Ms. Redford could promise to pay 100 per cent of all damages without knowing what the total bill will be because she knows that the federal government will eventually cover most of the cost.
People love to locate along rivers and coastlines because of the natural beauty; indeed, those areas usually have a city’s highest property values. Yet because they can’t buy overland flooding insurance in Canada, homeowners are totally dependent on government in case of disaster. Local governments approve housing and business development. They gain revenue from higher property taxes on projects located on rivers and coastlines, yet they expect senior governments to cover most expenses in case of disaster. Provincial politicians offer disaster relief, knowing that Ottawa will ultimately pay the lion’s share of the bills.
Canada’s disaster policy framework is a cat’s cradle of perverse incentives, encouraging people to locate in the wrong places while the expenses of disaster relief get passed on to higher levels of government, and ultimately to all taxpayers. If nothing changes, the costs of disaster relief can only rise in the future, as floodplain development becomes more intensive.
Precisely because these disasters are so terrible, politicians have a responsibility not just to respond to them, but to mitigate the suffering that they cause. That requires hard-headed analysis, which seems to have been insufficient up to this point. Instead of perverse incentives separating the costs of disaster relief from the benefits of property values, we have to find a way to bring them together.
In 1985, Canadian artists recorded a hit single, Tears Are Not Enough, in response to famine in Ethiopia. They were right; tears aren’t enough. There has to be an energetic and compassionate response, which we are now seeing in Alberta. But we can’t afford to stop after the cleanup is done. We also need mitigation of future disasters. Our decision-makers have to work toward public policies that unite costs and benefits, for politicians as well as ordinary citizens.
Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.
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