Flood Risks, Big Data, and Political Leadership

Posted on Posted in Opinion

Assiniboine River flooding, Winnipeg At the end of October the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo released a report entitled Climate Change and the Preparedness of Canadian Provinces and Yukon to Limit Potential Flood Damage (PDF) that should be required reading for Manitoba’s policymakers. Its recommendations should be taken very seriously given the economic and political fall-out of recent floods in this fair province.

The Waterloo report, which received major media attention in Eastern Canada and BC, ranked all ten provinces and the Yukon on their preparedness for major flood episodes. The report argues that flood risk is increasing because of climate change, and so flood risk management should be a first-order financial priority for all levels of government. The billion-dollar liability from the 2011 Manitoba flood and the PST point that got added to our tax bill as a result should be reminder enough to Manitobans of the financial risks of flooding.

flood risk is increasing because of climate change, and so flood risk management should be a first-order financial priority for all levels of government

Despite our hard-won experience enduring and surviving catastrophic floods, Manitoba did not rank highest for flood preparedness. That honour was bestowed upon Ontario, which scored a B-. Twelve criteria were used to determine the results, including flood plain mapping, land-use planning, home and commercial flood risk audits, and public health and safety. Manitoba received a middle-of-the-pack C; BC and PEI lagged the pack, scoring Ds.

The author’s recommendations target the federal and provincial governments, proposing new Chief Adaptation Officers in each province and territory to oversee flood risk minimization as a whole-of-government priority. They recommend inter-provincial coordination on key flood risks because downstream provinces inherit upstream problems, be they floodwaters or the economic impacts of washed-out infrastructure such highways or railroads.

The recommendation with the most teeth is their assertion that development should be restricted in areas known to be flood-prone. In their words: “It is unconscionable that developments are continuing in recognized flood zones, with limited flood mitigation controls in cities across Canada.” They boldly recommend that federal disaster recovery funding through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement (DFAA) be limited or withdrawn in cases where development took place in areas known to be at high risk. It’s a logical proposal but herein lies the rub – we don’t actually know the location of high-risk areas with the accuracy required for effective governance. Deploying the significant threat of DFAA retraction should be accompanied by federal responsibility to assert leadership on flood risk analysis to fill this gap.

Indeed, the Waterloo report reveals a fundamental, country-wide problem: flood risk assessment is a disjoint enterprise at best. Provinces variously and inconsistently use 1 in 30, 1 in 100, 1 in 200, and in some cases 1 in 500 year flood events for different categories of land-use planning and infrastructure design – another serious problem for consistent application of DFAA. The federal Office of the Auditor General (OAG) pointed out very similar issues in the Spring 2016 report Mitigating the Effects of Severe Weather. The OAG recommended that the federal department of Environment and Climate Change (ECCC) start producing regional extreme precipitation analyses that incorporate climate change effects, and noted that ECCC guidelines for flood hazard assessment and mapping were obsolete, having not been updated since 1996. ECCC does not have to do the heavy lifting alone; a constellation of regional assets like the Prairie Climate Centre can provide expertise and analyses, but a project of this magnitude requires provincial and federal leadership and coordination.

the Waterloo report reveals a fundamental, country-wide problem: flood risk assessment is a disjoint enterprise at best

Perhaps the most glaring flood hazard assessment issue is the systematic under-utilization of high-resolution topographic data, known as LiDAR, for pinpointing high risk areas. LiDAR, which measures elevations accurately to within centimetres and is essential to precise flood zone mapping, used to be expensive. Like most big data, the cost LiDAR plummets when acquired at scale, but it’s still relatively expensive for individual municipalities. A national, seamless LiDAR acquisition project would cost the federal government less than $400 million dollars; complete coverage south of the 60th parallel would be half this much and would usher in a new era of high-resolution risk analysis and climate change adaptation. U.S. states that have completed comprehensive LiDAR projects report high benefit-cost ratios, primarily through the cost savings of more efficient flood protection. In an era where we plan to pour billions upon billions into infrastructure, taking cost-effective steps to dramatically reduce infrastructure risk is a public policy no-brainer.

A national LiDAR project would also re-establish Canada (which is the birthplace of the technology as well as RadarSat and digital Geographic Information Systems) as the global leader in geospatial analysis. The project is, however much more than a technical exercise; it’s the modern expression of sovereignty over this landmass. In 1936 Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King remarked that “If some countries have too much history, we have too much geography”; that problem re-emerges as an existential challenge given the threat of climate change, but one that can be solved with smart investment, proactive policy, and governmental leadership.


Dr. Hank Venema

Prairie Climate Centre

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