If you buy a house in a flood zone, and you know it's in a flood zone, and then the zone floods and your house fills with water, whose fault is that?
That's the question being asked this week, after thousands of Canadians were evacuated from their homes because of severe flooding in Quebec. Virtually all of the images of sandbags and damaged living rooms you saw on TV came from areas located in known flood plains along the Ottawa River and Rivière des Prairies.
The federal government has had to send in troops to help, and both Ottawa and Quebec City have vowed to compensate homeowners for some of their costs. In other words, once again, Canadian taxpayers who don't live in flood zones will be on the hook for those who do.
"When Canadians are facing natural disasters, we pull together," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said by way of justification.
Yes, but when you buy or build a home whose location guarantees that it will at some point be damaged by high water, how unexpected is that disaster? There is an argument to be made that the Canadian model – i.e., let people live in flood zones, and then be all shocked when, naturally, their homes are flooded – is outdated.
But what to do about it? We can't abandon people who have been allowed by local governments, with the collusion of Ottawa and the provinces, to live in flood zones, any more than we can deny health care to smokers and heavy drinkers.
But Canada also can't go on this way. Anyone can see that flooding is affecting more and more people across the country.
Since 2000, there has been a series of dangerous, dramatic and expensive floods: Calgary and Toronto in 2013; Ottawa in 2009 and 2002; High River, Alberta, in 2005; Calgary and Red Deer, Alta., in 2005; Southern Ontario in 2005; Edmonton in 2004; Peterborough, Ont., in 2004 and 2002.
There is furthermore evidence that climate change is increasing the risk of severe and persistent rainstorms, like the one that dropped 200 millimetres of rain on Peterborough in 11 hours in 2002, or the one that unloaded 126 millimetres on Toronto in three hours in 2013, or the one that pounded the watershed in the Rockies west of Calgary in 2013 with more than 220 millimetres of rain in 36 hours and led to the historic disaster in that city and a number of nearby towns.
Similarly, the flooding in Montreal and Gatineau this week was caused by the intensity of the rains in April and early May.
The impact of changing weather patterns is being compounded by antiquated municipal sewer systems that can't handle giant surges in water flow, and by the mind-blowing fact that homes are still being built in known flood plains.
There are now 1.8 million households at "very high risk" of flooding, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Most of are in known flood plains, but not all. These days, a home in the middle of a large city like Toronto can be flooded by pounding rains.
The costs to homeowners and taxpayers have risen dramatically since 2000. The federal government alone will spend $673-million per year for the next five years in flood-disaster relief to the provinces and territories, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
And it's not just governments that are on the hook. Homeowners are out-of-pocket to the tune of $600-million per year to pay for flood damages, according to a University of Waterloo study.
Some see a simplistic solution for preventing flood damage: Don't let people live where flooding occurs, even if the likelihood of high water in any given year is just one in 100.
Ottawa tried that. In 1975, it launched the Flood Damage Reduction Program, a joint federal-provincial initiative that covered the costs of mapping out and designating flood zones in cities and towns. The idea was that provincial and local governments would agree to discourage building in the designated zones, and that any homes built there would not be eligible for disaster relief.
It worked for a while, but then Ottawa let it die – understandably, perhaps. It is politically impossible for a prime minister to stand in wading boots on a flooded street and announce that the people who live there have only themselves to blame and won't get a cent in aid. The agreements reached in the Flood Damage Reduction Program haven't been in effect for close to 20 years.
So what to do? Some say Ottawa and the provinces should just stop providing financial aid to flood victims, because that only encourages people to live in risky areas. But we are way past that point. Canadians have been living in flood zones for generations, and the sad fact is they probably don't even realize it. A survey by the University of Waterloo revealed that 75 per cent of homeowners in high-risk flood areas had no idea their properties were vulnerable.
Given all these complications, the best answer may be some form of public-private insurance for "overland flooding," which is what insurers call what happened in Gatineau and Montreal this week.
Private overland flooding insurance is still in its infancy in Canada. It can be expensive and, as the University of Waterloo survey showed, people may not realize they need it.
Ottawa and the provinces need to start producing up-to-date flood maps so that the public has a clear idea of the risks. After that, all property owners should be obliged to include overland flooding coverage in their insurance, with premiums varying according to the risks established by the maps. If necessary, Ottawa should help with the cost of premiums in high-risk areas, perhaps through tax credits.
According to the reinsurance giant Swiss Re, Australia, the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland, France, Spain and the United Kingdom have all adopted various types of private-public insurance programs. Ottawa could examine them all for ideas. The bottom line is that something has to be done. The waters are going to keep rising. Pretending you never saw it coming is no longer an option.