You can say many things about the flooding in Southern Alberta – that it is tragic, heartbreaking, horrifying – but what you can't say is that it was a surprise, or that the damage could not have been prevented or mitigated. Flooding is a fact of life in Canadian cities and towns. Some prepare for it well and have systems in place to prevent disaster; others, like Calgary, just hope for the best. With climate change likely to bring more extreme weather, and with technology now permitting scientists to develop better warning systems, it is time for all levels of government, led by Ottawa, to finally develop a national flood-prevention strategy. The hodgepodge of mitigation efforts across the country is rapidly becoming a relic from another time.
Canadians' minds are refocused on the threat of flash flooding in heavily populated areas roughly every second spring. The last big one occurred in 2011 along the Richelieu River in Quebec's Montérégie region. Thousands of people were left homeless for months. The damage rose into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the army was called in, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the stricken areas and dedicated his government to the task of preventing such large-scale disasters. "Today, the Prime Minister announced the Government is prepared to discuss a mitigation strategy that would apply to all provinces and territories to help enhance infrastructure to better withstand future floods," states a government press release from June 6, 2011.
But here is the problem: Canadians like to live in floodplains. Floodplains make for excellent farmland, and they are also a pleasant place to build a house, thanks to the view. Floodplains are where humans throughout history, from Cairo to Calgary and Toulouse to Toronto, have built cities and towns, and where some of the world's most valuable real estate is found.
Many Calgary neighbourhoods, as well as the downtown core, are conspicuously located in the floodplains of the Bow and Elbow rivers. This has not led, to date, to any major flood-prevention projects. The city's strategy, which reflects the public's desire to enjoy the rivers and live near them, has been to accept the fact that flooding will occur, and to hope the city can respond with minimal loss of property and life. A flood-preparation manual published by the city is telling. One "Frequently Asked Question" in the manual raises a good point: "Why doesn't the City build barriers along the riverbanks?" The answer? They "may affect views, walking paths and access to the river."
This deliberate choice has now had catastrophic human and economic consequences in Calgary and Southern Alberta. One bank has said the floods could shave five points off the province's annualized growth rate in 2013. Compensation costs borne by taxpayers will be in the billions.
Clearly, there is a tradeoff between the desire to live along waterways and the cost to society of that desire. Some cities have made the choice to put prevention first. In Winnipeg, the Red River Floodway, decried by its critics as a waste of money during its construction, has mitigated flooding in Winnipeg and saved billions of dollars since it went into service in 1969. In the Greater Toronto Area, which saw disastrous loss of life and property caused by flash flooding in the wake of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the inhabited floodplains that were awash have been turned into parks and conservation areas, partly through expropriation. In Europe, London and Paris both have sophisticated flood-protection systems.
In Calgary, the choice was to bet against the inevitable. This is not an unsound plan, or at least it wasn't in the past. Some flood planning will always include simply letting an area be inundated, and then cleaning up and moving on. But with an increase of extreme weather, such as flash thunderstorms and heavy snow in winter, which causes big spring melts, that strategy may no longer be sustainable for densely populated areas. Studies have shown that flood damage around the world has been growing at an ever-rising rate over the past 75 years, partly due to larger populations in floodplains, and partly due to the planet's warming trend.
Flood prevention can take many forms: zoning laws that ban the construction of new homes and buildings in floodplains; laws that require new homes in flood-prone areas to be raised; new building codes that reinforce flood protection in office buildings; the construction of dams and holding reservoirs upriver from major cities, and of floodways around them; and better warning systems to prevent loss of life in flash floods.
Those warning systems include Earth observation satellites that can measure groundwater saturation and warn the public when the saturation has reached critical levels – a sure sign that flooding may occur. The Canadian Space Agency has developed the Rapid Information Products and Services disaster initiative precisely for the purpose of informing government disaster-management planners, but to date it has not been integrated into Canada's flood-management planning.
The one thing Canada cannot do is assume that its flood-prevention infrastructure and systems are sufficient any more. Floods are becoming more dramatic and frequent. But they are also foreseeable and, if the will and the money are there, the choice can be made to prevent them from doing any damage. As Winnipeg, Toronto, Paris and London have all learned, you can spend the money now or you can spend it later, when the water is rushing through the middle of your city.