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A partly submerged commuter train in the greater Toronto area. (HANDOUT/Reuters)
A partly submerged commuter train in the greater Toronto area. (HANDOUT/Reuters)

Globe editorial

A ditch in time will save cities from floods Add to ...

It will come as little comfort to residents of Calgary and Toronto trying to cope after their homes and cars were swept up in flooding, but now is the moment for political leaders to embrace a proverbial ounce of prevention.

The ditches, dikes and other infrastructure that help stop floods are not a “hugely sexy thing,” as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi put it after surveying the wreckage in southern Alberta. They are a tough political sell, built for presumed future events that are hard to predict and mostly invisible when they work.

But such measures can also be relatively inexpensive, which should resonate as the Insurance Bureau of Canada predicts that Toronto’s floods will cost more than $600-million, and a major bank estimates Calgary’s cleanup and repair bills at $3-billion. It should be as easy as ever to make the case for smart spending before the next great storm clouds roll in.

Experts are describing more frequently extreme weather across the country as a “new normal.” Environment Canada has said plainly that we live in a warmer world, where heavy deluges of rain are more frequent and volatility in weather patterns is on the rise. And over the past 15 years, insurance companies have seen flooding surge past fires as their main cost in claims.

Faced with clear trends, municipal leaders should take a keen interest in immediate solutions.

The University of Waterloo, for example, is leading the Climate Change Adaptation Project Canada, designing and testing new “bioswails” – 10-metre-long cement ditches filled with rocks and plants that drain at the bottom. Blair Feltmate, the professor who chairs the project, predicts the return on investment for one bioswail could be 10 to 100 times. Put simply, a ditch that costs $100,000 to build could avert $4-million in future damage; imagine how much 40 well-placed bioswails might save.

Even climate-change skeptics who note that extreme weather has often occurred in history can agree that Dr. Feltmate’s math is appealing.

Smaller solutions like these should not come at the expense of disaster-response readiness, and those who have worked tirelessly to mitigate the recent floods must be commended. Nor will the large-scale infrastructure renewal so badly needed in many municipalities be any less necessary. But when the next flood washes in – and it will – some minor forward thinking might prevent some major headaches.

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