Saturday, May 13, 2017

We can't just keep paying for flood damage

The recent floods in Quebec, British Columbia and, to a lesser extent, Ontario amd New Brunswick, have led to a certain amount of politically unpalatable discussion along the lines of: how long are we going to keep using taxpayers' money to bail out (both financially and literally) home-owners who insist on living on recognized flood plains?
An estimated 1.8 million Canadian households are located in known flood-prone areas, areas considered by the Insurance Bureau of Canada to be at "very high risk" of flooding. Many of these householders know they live on a flood-plain, and choose to live with or just ignore the fact. The majority, however, seem to have no idea, despite the existence of maps, such as those from the Flood Damage Reduction Program, a massive flood mapping project which began in the 1970s and then was allowed to die in 1995 due to federal budget constraints.
Major floods occur in Canada pretty much every year. Within a few months of the establishment of the French colony of Ville-Marie (present day Montreal) in 1642, the settlement flooded, and settlers resorted to praying for it to end. Nowadays, we have better flood preparation and remediation protocols, but still floods continue to strike, particularly in these years of global warming - Peterborough in 2002 and 2004, Edmonton in 2004, Calgary, Red Deer and High River in 2005, Ottawa in 2009, Calgary and Toronto in 2013, and now Montreal, Gatineau and parts of BC. It is only likely to get worse.
The status quo is not cheap and not sustainable. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says that the federal government alone expects to spend $673 million a year for the next five years on flood disaster relief. Add to that sums to be expended by the provincial and municipal governments, and the amounts borne by affected individuals themselves, and the totals are quite significant.
Meanwhile, those householders and taxpayers who don't live on flood plains resent the money expended by all levels of government on those foolish enough to do so. Flood victims, on the other hand, whether or not they knew the risks, are just concerned with getting some compensation. And politicians of all stripes tend to be willing to grant it - there is nothing less likely to result in re-election than a politician who refuses to help the victims of a natural disaster, even ones who choose to live on flood plains. It is on a par with denying healthcare to smokers and heavy drinkers - intellectually logical, but politically impossible. Most times, governments just allow flood victims to rebuild in what is clearly a flood zone out of sheer political expediency and inertia, and usually even help them pay for it.
So, what are the options? Ever since the catastrophic flooding in Toronto after Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Ontario has had a system of conservation districts organized around watersheds, and the province exercises strict control over development in flood zones. After the 2013 floods in Alberta, the Albertan government offered to buy up homes in one flood zone, with the proviso that those who chose not to accept (and almost two-thirds did not) would not be covered for flood losses in the future.
Another idea, popular in some countries, is that of public-private flood insurance, whereby flood insurance would be made mandatory, with the premiums reflecting the relative flood risks of different areas. It wouldn't come cheap, but then neither is the alternative. If necessary, governments could help with the costs of premiums, through tax credits for example.
I'm not actually sure what the best solution is, but it's pretty clear that all three levels of government need to be at least talking about it, and preferably together. At the very least, up-to-date flood maps should be produced, and the public apprised of their risks and responsibilities.

No comments: