Canada’s largest cities collectively made little or no progress in preparing for flooding over the past five years, according to a new report, even as increasing numbers of homeowners discover their homes are effectively uninsurable for Canada’s costliest natural hazard.
The University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation interviewed dozens of officials at 16 of the country’s largest municipal governments over the past 2½ years. They were asked to self-assess their city’s performance in preventing development in known floodplains, protecting critical infrastructure such as their electricity grid, maintaining drainage systems, and other criteria. The centre accepted their responses as fact; it granted anonymity to encourage them to speak freely.
The resulting average score, C+, is unchanged from a 2015 Intact Centre study that used nearly identical methodology. Blair Feltmate, the centre’s head, said the lack of progress reflects a prevailing attitude toward climate change in Canada. Much attention has been focused on reducing the country’s emissions, but little has been paid to adapting to the consequences.
That’s a problem, he says, because homes in vulnerable areas are quickly becoming uninsurable, or prohibitively expensive to insure. “So we’re starting to realize now, finally, that flooding is problematic,” he said. “But are we doing enough about it, rapidly enough? The answer is no.”
The report singled out Edmonton as the best-prepared city. It stood alone in providing free home flood assessments through its municipally owned utility, Epcor. (Offered for about a decade, they advise homeowners on simple measures they can take to reduce their property’s exposure to flood-related damage.) Edmonton was also the only city demonstrating “the highest level of preparedness” for pluvial flooding – that is, when torrential rainfall overwhelms drainage systems or causes flash floods.
Edmonton is “quite advanced,” Mr. Feltmate said. “It could almost function as a model city.”
It wasn’t always that way. Edmonton scored a mediocre C in 2015. Michael Walters, an Edmonton city councillor, said that poor showing galvanized the municipality to study how to improve resiliency of residential neighborhoods, health care facilities, electricity grid, transit system and other infrastructure.
In 2016 the city transferred its sanitary and stormwater drainage systems to Epcor, which was assigned to draft a comprehensive assessment of flooding risk throughout the city and prioritize infrastructure spending.
Finalized in 2019, that plan represents “the biggest reason we’ve gone from a low score to a very high score,” Mr. Walters said. “So I’m feeling better than I ever have about this issue.”
The centre also praised Toronto and Regina for maintaining the integrity of telecommunications, electricity and other infrastructure during major floods. Halifax, which performed abysmally in 2015, was the most improved city; Mr. Feltmate said it had reformed its land-use planning and drainage practices.
Offsetting those improvements, six cities performed worse in the latest study: Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Charlottetown and St. John’s. Some of these cities, notably Montreal and Ottawa, suffered major floods in the years between the two studies. Winnipeg and Yellowknife performed the worst, each earning D scores.
Ryan Ness, adaptation research director for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, reviewed the report. Its findings didn’t surprise him. For one thing, Canada lacks a national flood mapping program, and most existing maps focus on flood risk along rivers and coasts while neglecting areas vulnerable to pluvial flooding.
Mr. Ness said most municipalities respond sluggishly to flood risks. “That’s not to say municipalities aren’t aware and aren’t doing anything,” he said. “But it all takes time. And without a major injection of funding or new powers on the part of municipalities, it’s going to be a relatively slow process.”
Daniel Henstra, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said municipalities are powerfully motivated to “develop every square inch of land” to maximize income from development charges and property taxes. This often leads to development in flood-prone areas.
Mr. Feltmate said Canada needs to rapidly “step up its game,” but feared the centre’s next study (planned for 2025) will find a similar lack of progress.
“There is still a lack of appreciation in the country for the need to act with urgency to mitigate flood risk,” Mr. Feltmate said.
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