Flood governance in Canada: Who’s minding the store?

2 January 18, 2016 at 1:42 pm by

iStock_000010563351_SmallA recent article published in The Guardian about flood governance in the UK got me thinking about the issue here at home. And while I wouldn’t go as far as that article and call the oversight and management of flood in Canada a mess, I would say that the diverse, multi-tiered, sometimes almost ad-hoc nature of flood management and oversight in Canada is problematic on at least a couple of fronts.

First, consider the number of ministries, agencies, departments, authorities, councils and so on that are responsible for managing flood in many provinces.

Take Ontario for instance. Depending on location and type of event being considered (eg. fluvial or riverine vs. pluvial or urban), flood in the province is managed by no fewer than 36 conservation authorities (with the addition of Conservation Ontario as an umbrella organization), the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, and a total of 444 municipalities of the upper, lower and two-tier variety. One must also consider the federal government, which is responsible for some waterways in the province (such as the Trent-Severn, Rideau Canal and St. Lawrence Seaway) as well as floodplain mapping in First Nations/Aboriginal communities. On top of this, one must also include the owners of private flood management infrastructure, of which there are a surprisingly large number.

Across the rest of Canada, there is a similar dog’s breakfast of provincial ministries, federal, provincial and municipal agencies and departments, basin and watershed planning and advisory councils and private flood management infrastructure owners, with all having varying levels of (sometimes contrasting and conflicting) responsibilities and authority. (Against this backdrop, a comparatively simple task like collecting all existing flood maps in the country and putting them in one place becomes very complex and time consuming.)

Beginning with the big picture, in many jurisdictions in Canada there is little or no coordination between those responsible for riverine flooding, municipal storm water management, and groundwater monitoring. And while there are sound reasons why these areas have largely worked independently from each other over the decades, there are a growing number of reasons why the three need to work together more often going forward (particularly as our understanding of flood is improved and the interconnections between riverine flooding, storm water management and groundwater monitoring are better understood and appreciated).

Along with the macro side of the silo issue is the problem of silos within silos.

In most jurisdictions (federal, provincial, municipal and watershed) there is no single person and no single agency or department that is in charge of flood. What’s more, within larger entities, there are separate departments or groups that deal with flood mapping, hydrology and flood modelling, flood defense, conservation and disaster assistance.

The long and short of it is that players in the flood arena in each province often aren’t talking amongst themselves. And, for the most part, they aren’t really talking to the federal government about flood, either.

On this second point, at least part of the problem lies with the winding-down of the federal Flood Damage Reduction Program (FDRP) some years ago. This leads us to the second major issue with flood management/oversight in Canada.

According to an archived webpage on the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s website, the FDRP “…represented a significant change in approach from an ad hoc structural response to flooding to a more comprehensive approach focusing on prevention and non-structural measures. It was also more equitable.”

And while the FDRP was not a coordinating body per se, it was a standards setting and cost sharing program, which acted as a coordinating body – at least for the purposes of setting minimum national standards for flood plain mapping and for homogenizing approaches to disaster assistance. The FDRP played an important role in getting the provinces and the federal government largely on the same page regarding flood mapping, flood defence, flood risk reduction, and disaster assistance.

Alas, the program was wound down in the late 1990s.

So, in nutshell, flood management and governance in Canada is plagued by (at least) two major issues.

First, flood is the responsibility of a patchwork quilt of entities that not only have a hard time communicating and coordinating between themselves, but often have a hard time communicating and coordinating within themselves.

Second, the winding down of the FDRP has almost completely put an end to provincial/federal discussions and coordination related to flood management. Much of the only remaining communication that takes place deals with the application for and payment of disaster assistance from Ottawa to the provinces via the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements.

Both of these shortfalls need to be addressed in order for the country to be able to move forward with a well coordinated approach that looks at flood holistically.

To address the first problem, each province is best advised to take what is essentially an enterprise risk management approach to flood, perhaps starting with the establishment of a directorate or centre that would serve as a central hub or one-stop-shop for riverine flood management and oversight (though including urban flooding in such a body would likely not be feasible due to its multifarious nature). At least then, when the federal government, (re)insurance industry or other body needs to approach a given province on the issue of flood, they would know where to start.

Next, the federal government may wish to seriously consider re-establishment of a FDRP to restore flood-related communication and coordination, standard-setting, and cost-sharing with the provinces. While the new National Disaster Mitigation Program (NDMP) could fill gaps left by the now defunct FDRP, it remains to be seen whether the NDMP will play the same roll and have the same reach as the FDRP. If it does, it is welcomed. If not, the federal government may consider forming a singular, flood-focused entity – staffed by flood experts – to aid in the creation of a holistic, risk management-based national flood management program for the country.

Currently, each of the parts do a very good job of managing and governing flood in their respective areas of operation. But the parts currently do not make add up to what’s needed for an effective whole.

It is largely a matter of building the proper institutions to facilitate better communication, coordination and cost-sharing.

Build it and they will come.



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