Skip to main content

The Vancouver harbour is seen at dusk from Vancouver to North Vancouver, on Aug. 3, 2019. Experts agree that over the next 50 years British Columbia has a one-in-10 chance of being hit by a magnitude-9 earthquake.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

A massive earthquake on B.C.’s South Coast could disrupt the flow of drinking water in and around Vancouver for several months, while bottled water and meal rations would likely be very difficult to deliver because of damage to the region’s dozen bridges, says an internal case study for Canada’s agriculture ministry.

The federal government wouldn’t be able to help much: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the agency in charge of the response, would only be able to “facilitate” businesses and charities delivering such life-saving necessities, according to a March, 2018, case study and other internal documents obtained through freedom-of-information laws by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin and passed on to The Globe and Mail.

The documents show the department has long been concerned about being designated to take a leading federal role in providing food and water if a province or territory asks Ottawa to pitch in on disaster relief. Things did not go well the lone time AAFC was asked for such assistance in recent years, when Public Safety Canada requested it source bottled water to give to asylum seekers crossing the border into Quebec in August, 2017.

Story continues below advertisement

big earthquake could hamper

relief efforts

A big earthquake off the coast of southern

British Columbia could hinder the distribution

of relief supplies by damaging key infrastruc-

ture such as bridges and reservoirs. An internal

case study by Canada’s agriculture department

found an earthquake of that force could disrupt

the flow of drinking water in and around Van-

couver for several months, while bottled water

and meal rations would likely be very difficult

to deliver because of damage to the region’s

bridges.

Seymour

Reservoir

Legend

Capilano

Reservoir

Coquitlam

Reservoir

Areas of

key bridges

Indian

Arm

Burrard

Inlet

Key northern

reservoirs

Coquitlam

Vancouver

Maple

Ridge

Surrey

Fraser River

Salvation

Army depot

Delta

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

0

5

Abbotsford

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada via ken

rubin; GOOGLE MAPS

big earthquake could hamper

relief efforts

A big earthquake off the coast of southern British Colum-

bia could hinder the distribution of relief supplies by

damaging key infrastructure such as bridges and reser-

voirs. An internal case study by Canada’s agriculture

department found an earthquake of that force could

disrupt the flow of drinking water in and around Vancou-

ver for several months, while bottled water and meal

rations would likely be very difficult to deliver because of

damage to the region’s bridges.

Seymour

Reservoir

Legend

Coquitlam

Reservoir

Capilano

Reservoir

Areas of

key bridges

Indian

Arm

Burrard

Inlet

Key northern

reservoirs

Coquitlam

Vancouver

Maple

Ridge

Surrey

Fraser River

Salvation

Army depot

Delta

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

0

5

Abbotsford

KM

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Agriculture

and Agri-Food Canada via ken rubin; GOOGLE MAPS

big earthquake could hamper relief efforts

A big earthquake off the coast of southern British Columbia could hinder the distribution of

relief supplies by damaging key infrastructure such as bridges and reservoirs. An internal case

study by Canada’s agriculture department found an earthquake of that force could disrupt the

flow of drinking water in and around Vancouver for several months, while bottled water and

meal rations would likely be very difficult to deliver because of damage to the region’s bridges.

Seymour

Reservoir

Legend

Coquitlam

Reservoir

Areas of

key bridges

Capilano

Reservoir

Indian

Arm

W. Van.

Key northern

reservoirs

Pitt

Lake

N. Van.

Burrard

Inlet

0

5

Coquitlam

KM

Burnaby

Vancouver

Maple

Ridge

Steelhead

Surrey

Richmond

Fraser River

Langley

City

Salvation

Army depot

Delta

Westham

Island

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Boundary

Bay

Abbotsford

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

via ken rubin; GOOGLE MAPS

“The request revealed logistical challenges within AAFC surrounding how water would be sought (donation vs. procurement) as well as confusion regarding the responsibility for related actions within the department,” a memo to the deputy minister of the department stated.

Experts agree that over the next 50 years British Columbia has a one-in-10 chance of being hit by a magnitude-9 event, which is similar to the most recent megathrust earthquake, near Japan in 2011, which created a massive tsunami. But the case study, as well as an analysis commissioned by the federal department in 2015, shows not much progress is being made to address the gaps in how Ottawa would respond.

Unlike in the United States, where the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency stockpile food and water, Canada doesn’t have a dedicated disaster response agency and AAFC does not have warehouses full of supplies, according to the 2018 internal case study.

“AAFC would be challenged to lead the federal response to a request for safe food and water for public consumption due to the fact that AAFC is not an on-the-ground response system, has no direct access or ownership of food or water supplies, and has limited water-related expertise and resources,” the documents state.

Meanwhile, B.C.'s Emergency Management Agency noted its plans for how to provide potable water have been put on hold until it receives an update from Metro Vancouver, the regional body in charge of the area’s drinking-water network.

Metro Vancouver wouldn’t divulge its “multiyear" plans beyond saying five new water tunnels are being designed to current seismic standards. The organization did not provide an expected date for when these projects would be completed.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has announced the province is planning to update its emergency-management laws by next fall to better manage and reduce the risks posed by natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes. He noted the last time they were updated was in 1993.

Story continues below advertisement

He said it’s understandable that the federal government doesn’t stockpile food.

“The question becomes, how long were you stockpiling it for? … Even water, if it was bottled water, for example, has a life. But those are the kinds of issues that we take into account in terms of our emergency planning,” Mr. Farnworth said.

“One of the reasons why we advise people to be ready, if there is a disaster, to have 72 hours worth of supplies on hand, is because it will take time, [and] depending on where you are it may in fact take longer to get help and services to you.”

John Clague, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University who has studied earthquakes for three decades, said AAFC’s case study shows the federal government agency is serious about identifying the major shortfalls in its response capability. But, he said, the report also reveals the major challenges faced by Metro Vancouver if even a magnitude-7.5 earthquake hits with an epicentre 50 kilometres or closer to the region.

A good comparison for Vancouver, Dr. Clague said, is the magnitude-6.3 quake that hit seven kilometres from Christchurch, New Zealand, and led to nearly 200 deaths and $20-billion in damage. A worst-case scenario on the Canadian West Coast would likely see hundreds of thousands of Vancouver residents scrambling for potable water in the days following such a quake, he said.

living on the edge

An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction

zone could register higher than 9 on the Rich-

ter scale, about as powerful as the Tohoku

earthquake that devastated Japan in 2011.

Nothing like it has occurred in British Columbia

since Europeans first arrived, but traces of a

massive quake that shook the entire region on

Jan. 26, 1700, can still be found. Today, the

same event would deal a crippling blow to

communities and infrastructure in one of

Canada’s most populous regions.

British

columbia

Vancouver

Seattle

Victoria

Coast Mountains

u.s.

Continental

crust

North

American

Plate

Haida

Gwaii

Juan de

Fuca Plate

Pacific

Plate

Cascadia fault

Pacific

Ocean

Oceanic crust

Subduction zone

Juan de Fuca plate

is sliding underneath

the Continental crust

Mantle

Partial melting

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: USGS; GOOGLE MAPS; GRAPHIC NEWS; NATURAL

RESOURCES CANADA; POST MEDIA

living on the edge

An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone could

register higher than 9 on the Richter scale, about as pow-

erful as the Tohoku earthquake that devastated Japan in

2011. Nothing like it has occurred in British Columbia since

Europeans first arrived, but traces of a massive quake that

shook the entire region on Jan. 26, 1700, can still be

found. Today, the same event would deal a crippling blow

to communities and infrastructure in one of Canada’s

most populous regions.

British

columbia

Vancouver

Seattle

Victoria

Coast Mountains

u.s.

Tacoma

Continental

crust

North

American

Plate

Haida

Gwaii

Juan de

Fuca Plate

Pacific

Plate

Cascadia fault

Pacific

Ocean

Subduction zone

Oceanic crust

Juan de Fuca plate

is sliding underneath

the Continental crust

Mantle

Partial melting

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: USGS; GOOGLE MAPS; GRAPHIC NEWS; NATURAL

RESOURCES CANADA; POST MEDIA

living on the edge

An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone could register higher than 9 on the Richter

scale, about as powerful as the Tohoku earthquake that devastated Japan in 2011. Noth-

ing like it has occurred in British Columbia since Europeans first arrived, but traces of a

massive quake that shook the entire region on Jan. 26, 1700, can still be found. Today, the

same event would deal a crippling blow to communities and infrastructure in one of Cana-

da’s most populous regions.

Canada

British

columbia

Two plates

u.s.

Vancouver

British Columbia borders

two tectonic plates moving

in opposite directions

Coast Mountains

Seattle

Victoria

Tacoma

Continental

crust

Van. Island

North

American

Plate

Haida

Gwaii

Juan de

Fuca Plate

Cascadia fault

Pacific

Plate

Subduction zone

Pacific

Ocean

Juan de Fuca plate

is sliding underneath

the Continental crust

Oceanic crust

Mantle

ivan semeniuk and JOHN

SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: USGS; GOOGLE MAPS;

GRAPHIC NEWS; NATURAL RESOURCES

CANADA; POST MEDIA

Partial melting

“You can imagine the water supply system – which is basically feeding from our [three] North Shore reservoirs – would be broken,” Dr. Clague said. "These are subsurface lines, the infrastructure is old and it is going to be a long time at a huge cost before it is capable of resisting a worst-case earthquake.”

Story continues below advertisement

Patrick Girard, an AAFC spokesman, said his department is working with the provinces to better understand when they feel they would need Ottawa’s help.

In the meantime, as recommended in the case study, AAFC has created a list of businesses and organizations that could be asked to provide food and water after a massive natural disaster, Mr. Girard confirmed.

If “The Big One” hits Vancouver, the AAFC case study found the non-governmental organization the province intends to lean on the most – the Salvation Army – could provide meals for 10,000 people a day.

But the charity said it has nowhere near the capacity to make 100,000 such meals, which would represent roughly one daily ration for every six people living in Vancouver.

The case study noted the Salvation Army has 13 food banks across the province and has asked local restaurants and the Save-On Foods grocery chain to donate meals in the aftermath of past natural disasters. Still, mobilizing the delivery of these supplies in Metro Vancouver could be impossible given that “a catastrophic earthquake in Southwestern B.C. would result in extensive damage to road and rail networks.”

“Even moving a mobile unit from Abbotsford [west] to the City of Vancouver could be hampered by damage to bridges,” the case study stated.

Story continues below advertisement

John McEwan, the director of Emergency Disaster Services for the B.C. arm of the Salvation Army, said he is optimistic that within two days of a massive quake his organization could be pumping out up to 50,000 meals a day. Within a week, airdrops of water and food could vastly increase that capacity, he said, but the state of the region’s roads and bridges would dictate how easily these supplies could be distributed.

“There are ways to do this, but it won’t happen overnight,” said Mr. McEwan, who has been working in the field of disaster relief across the Western Hemisphere for two decades.

He said every household should stockpile enough food and water to last longer than the three days worth recommended by the province: “If I’m the preacher, I’m saying seven days.”

The Canadian Red Cross, the other organization with a memorandum of understanding to help British Columbia in the wake of a disaster, mainly pitches in to provide clothing, emergency lodging, reception and information, personal and family reunification services, the case study noted.

The charity e-mailed a statement to The Globe noting that it could also provide water and sanitation after a catastrophic disaster and it has “access to resources and expertise from around the world through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.”

AAFC has long been uncomfortable with its stated responsibility of providing food and water if a province or territory asks Ottawa to pitch in on disaster relief.

Story continues below advertisement

In 2015, the AAFC commissioned an analysis from an outside consultant that recommended the department lobby the federal government to change the national emergency response plan adopted in 2011 to better reflect AAFC’s inability to provide food and water.

The 2015 report, which Mr. Rubin also received and passed to The Globe, responded to the AAFC’s request to provide a rationale for shifting this responsibility to Health Canada, which is responsible for medical supplies.

The consultant’s report found AAFC was the best department to stickhandle the emergency response because it “has strong existing networks that could be leveraged in an emergency event, and could serve as the basis for broadened partnerships, with respect to both food and water."

An appendix to the report stated: “We are of the view that AAFC would encounter strong resistance from both Public Safety Canada and the Health Portfolio to any proposal that the lead role for securing safe food should move away from AAFC.”

With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies