The words of Canadians whose homes have been flooded in recent days are disheartening. And they underline a remarkable, and remarkably simple, failure of Canadian public policy.
One man, among the thousands of people evacuated on the weekend from Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, northwest of Montreal, had been told the area was safe from floods before he bought his home there in the mid-2000s. “It’s a shock,” he told The Globe and Mail, his two daughters at his side. “I never thought it could happen here.”
This spring brings yet another painful reminder of Canada’s failings when it comes to floods. Many of the people who have suffered personal loss and jarring dislocation did not knowingly put themselves in harm’s way. Had they known more, they might have made different choices. But clear information to make good decisions – to know whether you’re moving into a flood zone – is generally not available to Canadians.
Prof. Jason Thistlethwaite and colleagues at the University of Waterloo have cast a spotlight on the problem. Two years ago, as Ottawa was shifting the burden of flood costs to lower levels of governments and to homeowners, the University of Waterloo surveyed 2,300 Canadians across the country, whose homes were in places with a high risk of flooding. When asked if their home was in a vulnerable area, three out of four people mistakenly answered “No.” The study concluded, “Homeowners throughout the country need better information about flood risk."
But homeowners who go looking for better information may not find it. Prof. Thistlethwaite examined hundreds of flood maps and found them lacking. Half weren’t even made in this century. Most were not publicly accessible. And for the upward of one-third of Canadians in flood-prone areas, there were no maps at all outlining the risks.
This is not an abstract problem, as anyone in Quebec – or New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta or elsewhere – knows all too well. Of the country’s estimated 8.6-million residences, some 1.8-million – one in five – faces the risk of flooding, which for Canadian homeowners is by far the likeliest and priciest of natural disasters.
It is getting worse. The 2017 flooding in Quebec, which damaged about 5,400 homes, has been described as “unprecedented.” Two years later, about 6,700 homes in Quebec have now been flooded.
Costs for Canada have shot higher in recent years, in part due to massive floods in 2011 in Manitoba and 2013 in Calgary. The escalating tally of Ottawa’s Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program is stark. According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in the quarter century from 1970 through 1994, Ottawa paid out $1.1-billion. In the next decade, 1995 to 2004, it was $1.6-billion. But in the following decade, 2005 to 2014, the payouts more than doubled, to $3.8-billion. (Costs were measured in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars.)
Canada needs to invest in the best flood mapping available and make the results accessible to, and understandable for, the average person. Maps in British Columbia, for instance, while available online, are of limited use thanks to impenetrable and antiquated renderings. And as Canada creates modern maps, care must be taken to outline not only fluvial flooding – rivers that inundate floodplains – but also the risk of pluvial flooding, the result of heavy rainfall in cities where aging sewers can’t handle the pounding or in rural areas when ground conditions can’t absorb a deluge of rain.
A ready example to follow comes from England’s Environment Agency. Citizens who type their location into a website are presented with a wealth of exact information.
The costs of being prepared far outweigh the damage floods leave behind. One 2014 estimate suggested it would take $365-million to properly map Canada’s many floodplains. To put the number in an easy perspective, the cost of the 2017 floods in Quebec alone cost the provincial treasury $376-million – and that doesn’t count insurance claims or costs shouldered by citizens.
Maps don’t prevent floods. But by letting Canadians know where the danger zones are, and where not to build or to take extra flood precautions, they can help to prevent floods from causing such widespread property damage. In a country that is home to so much fresh water, the dearth of good flood maps is surprising, and inexcusable. Quebec is moving to fix its map deficit by 2021. The information gap needs to be remedied across Canada, and quickly.