Looking at water through a catastrophic loss and hazard risk reduction lens

0 May 14, 2014 at 9:53 am by

From a societal perspective, flooding is the most common natural hazard. This is true both worldwide and in Canada, where roughly 40 per cent of losses in the Canadian Disaster Database are from floods.

From a homeowners (and home insurers) perspective, water damage is now the most common driver of insurance claims, surpassing fire in or around 2005. Water causes at least $1.8 billion in insured losses every year, much of it from sewer backup and basement flooding, often triggered by extreme rainfall.

Last year many players in Canada, including several local governments, two provinces, the federal government and thousands of Canadians found out the hard way just how problematic water can be.

In the span of just a few weeks, residents of southern Alberta and the Greater Toronto Area were hit with major flooding, with a mixture of riverine and urban flooding in such places as Calgary, Canmore and High River in late June, and urban flooding in parts of Toronto and Mississauga in early July. For those unsure of the distinction, riverine floods occur when a river bursts its banks, whether due to extreme rainfall, snowmelt, ice jamming or any combination thereof; while urban flooding is not directly associated with a body of water and is largely caused by extreme rainfall.

The southern Alberta event goes down as the costliest natural catastrophe in Canadian history, with $1.83 billion in insured damage and approximately $6 billion in total damage. The GTA event goes down as the third costliest natural catastrophe in Canadian history at $999.5 million in insured damage.

Floods such as these have lasting effects on human health, the economy, infrastructure, public policy, property taxes, mortgage availability, and homeowners insurance, to name but a few.

Floods can also wreak havoc on business and industry, both in terms of physical damage and – these days – in terms of disruption to global supply chains. In the months following the huge earthquake and tsunamis in Japan in March 2011, many major Japanese manufacturers moved production to Thailand. Just a few months later, in July 2011, months-long flooding began, eventually inundating many of the country’s industrial parks. More than 20,000 companies – at least 720 of them Japanese – employing over 790,000 people in 16 provinces were hit by floods. Several of Japan’s big manufacturers, like Toyota, Honda, Canon and Sharp were affected. Ironically, several Japanese producers sent Thai workers back to Japan in order to restart production.

Last year’s flood events in Canada forced a number of issues to the fore, including the fact that Canada is the only G8 country where homeowners cannot purchase insurance for overland flood. In fact, Canada also appears to be the only G20 country as well. The G20 is made up of 19 countries plus the European Union for a total of 47 states. And of those, we are the only advanced industrialized economy where homeowners are essentially on their own after an overland flood event, forcing many to look to government for disaster assistance.

Indeed, because most natural hazard damage is insurable and most Canadians buy insurance, the lion’s share of disaster assistance paid out by the provinces (and by the federal government to the provinces) is for flood. Over the years, this hazard has cost Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars. It is surely a liability from which the provinces and the federal government would most surely like to extricate themselves.

The reasons why natural hazards become disasters are many and complex. To boil it down to the base concepts, however, ICLR points to three main drivers: concentration of values, the state of our infrastructure and climate change.

I fear that there is not much that can be done about the first. Accumulation of huge amounts of assets, mostly in our cities, is not something that can readily be undone. Indeed, we are in fact going the other way, as density has become the new mantra in urban planning. Just consider the number of condominiums being put up in Toronto year after year.

Hand-in-hand with density comes the resultant loss of greenspace and growing amount of pavement and large roofs on big box stores; and the increasing number of water consumers and wastewater generators being jammed into increasingly tighter and tighter spaces. These all increase the already monumental challenges being faced by storm water managers.

Much has been said about the poor state of Canadian infrastructure in recent years. In this country, we are tens of billion of dollars behind the eight ball on infrastructure renewal, with as much as 60 per cent of our public built environment being up to 100 years old or more. And it appears that whenever the government releases a few extra billion for shovel-ready projects, usually to get people back to work, the funds go to that new ice rink or recreation centre. Storm water management almost always seems to fall by the wayside.

Finally, and perhaps most disconcerting, however, is our changing climate.

2013 marked the 4th warmest year on record. March 2014 marked the 38th consecutive March and 349th consecutive month with a global temperature at or above the 20th century average. For the first time in at least 3 million years, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm every single day last month.

There is currently a myth – or a lie – making the rounds that the warming stopped in 1997 and there has been a pause ever since. These numbers surely don’t indicate that such a pause is really taking place.

I was watching a re-run of Big Bang Theory the other night where one scientist remarked that he was going to be on a  global warming’ panel. I know that the show takes great pride in scientific accuracy, but they fell down on that one, as ‘global warming’ is a term borne from the media. Scientists call it ‘climate change’.

It is called climate change because the fall-out from the runaway greenhouse effect involves much more than just warming.

Climate change also involves, among other things, more frequent and severe precipitation events, including rainfalls. Indeed, Canada now experiences 20 more days of rain compared with the 1950s.

We will also experience deeper and wider droughts.

Climate change is not coming, it is already here.

We have already seen significant changes in our climate from just .8 degrees Celsius of warming and barely 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

If we continue in the direction we are going, we will see 600 ppm of carbon and several more degrees of warming just a few short decades from now. For every degree Celsius we go up, the atmosphere will hold up to 7% more water vapour.

You do the math.

In many cases, we know what needs to be done. Along with reducing the stranglehold that fossil carbon has on all of us – an area that neither I nor ICLR are experts in; we must strive to be more resilient. This is an area we are experts in.

We must first work to get people away from water, not water away from people. This is where good land use planning comes into play. In a phrase: Get them off the floodplain! This may involve buying out those situated in harms way and turning the area into greenspace, as was done in the GTA after Hurricane Hazel in 1954. It also involves not allowing new development in the floodway, for any reason, at any cost.

Where it is not possible or practical to buyout property owners, such as in older highly built-up areas, flood defence assets must be constructed as a last resort.

Those located in the flood fringe and outside it must adopt resiliency features at the lot and neighbourhood levels. Homeowners must be encouraged to take actions to reduce the risk of basement flooding on their properties. This may involve re-landscaping, disconnecting downspouts, disconnecting foundation drains and connecting them to a sump, installing a backup sump pump with emergency power and installing a backwater valve, among other things.

Building code must change to include mandatory basement flood risk reduction measures, such as backwater valves, which are not currently mandatory in B.C. and Ontario. Other considerations include building higher foundation walls, and banning the construction of homes with reverse-slope driveways and below-grade walkouts that are located in floodways or on the flood fringe. Use of water-friendly building materials must also be considered.

We must strive to replace old infrastructure with new, eliminating combined systems that not only contribute to urban flooding but that also often lead to the release of raw sewage and untreated water into natural waterways.

We must work to upgrade sewer capacity, particularly to take future weather into consideration, and look to install temporary storm water storage facilities in a bid to prevent storm sewer systems from becoming overwhelmed during rainfall events that exceed design.

Along with replacing existing storm water infrastructure with more up-to-date, separate, higher capacity systems, and using such solutions as underground storm water storage tanks; we also need to consider the use of bioswales, rain gardens, permeable payment, green roofs, high capacity rain barrels and so on.

Along with hard and soft infrastructure, we must also foster the spread of certain public policy tools that are currently in place in just a small number of municipalities across Canada. Such tools include bylaws making downspout disconnection mandatory (see Toronto and Markham, Ontario and Quebec City for examples), bylaws that make backwater valves mandatory (see Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario for examples), and the use of storm water credits that encourage less use of impermeable pavement and more use of grass and permeable pavement (see Victoria, B.C. and Kitchener, Ontario).

Finally, government must enter into a dialogue with the insurance industry about the creation of a flood insurance program for Canadian homeowners, as many studies show that the quick flow of insurance claims money speeds up recovery after a hazard event.

We are in for a future that will be at once be very uncertain but very certain. It is not yet clear just how much warmer and how much wetter it will get – but it will, unquestionably, be warmer and wetter.


This speech was given at the E3 Symposium entitled ‘The economics of water’, held at Centennial College on Friday, May 9, 2014.

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