Even best-case emissions scenarios only aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C – and even then, thousands of Canadian homes are at risk of damaging flooding, with multi-fold increases in recovery costs.
Just how many homes, and how high the repair bill, is a bit clearer now, thanks to a report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, released earlier this month, which says Canada’s homes and infrastructure are woefully underprepared for a climate future with more frequent, and more intense, severe weather events.
“Flood maps aren't yet factoring in a hotter and more volatile climate that, in some places, could see so-called once-in-a-century flood events happening every decade by the end of the century. That’s a lot to come to terms with,” Ryan Ness, the Institute’s adaptation director, told The Weather Network.
For context, the institute notes the $5 billion in damages done by the 2013 Alberta floods was roughly in line with a 10- to 20-year flood event. More damaging 100-year rainfall events in the Toronto, Edmonton, and Calgary areas could occur as often as every six years by 2100 in a higher-emissions scenario.
The number of homes and businesses in the path of such floods is not small. The institute’s figures say around 950,000 buildings in Canada are in a 100-year risk zone for inland flooding (or, more simply, carry a 1 per cent risk of flooding per year).
Around 550,000 buildings are located in the 20-year risk zone, where there is a 1-in-20 chance of flooding in a given year – which doesn’t sound high, but will definitely be meaningful to homeowners when the inevitable floodwaters do arrive and the repair bill comes due.
And when they do, the costs will rise considerably over the coming century. From an estimated $1.3 billion per year at present, flood damage costs will increase fourfold by 2100 even in a low-emission scenario, and around sevenfold in a high-emissions scenario.
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COSTS TO HOMEOWNERS ARE PROHIBITIVE – AND RISING
The hundreds of thousands of Canadians living in those flood zones are likely to experience a major flooding event at least once in their lifetimes, and likely more than once. Many won’t realistically be able to afford to move, and those that remain face steep adaptation costs to stave off the worst flood risks.
And when the disaster itself strikes, there’s another problem: Flood insurance is hard to get – only 10–15 per cent of homeowners have it – and Ness says it’s already prohibitively expensive for those who need it most.
“While some insurers do offer coverage for overland flooding—if you specifically ask for it—in the highest risk areas across Canada, the rates are unaffordable, or insurers will decline to provide it at all,” Ness says.
He adds that while people expect governments to continue to cover losses from flooding, in reality, Ottawa and the provinces have been working to decrease disaster-related payouts, specifically because of how unaffordable they are becoming.
“In the long term, governments need to address these high-risk areas by building protective infrastructure like dams and sea walls and, in some cases, relocating people and communities,” Ness says. “But in the meantime, they need to look at measures like special high-risk insurance pools to share the cost and keep flood insurance affordable—especially for marginalized communities and people.”
HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS NEEDED TO RESTORE INFRASTRUCTURE
The institute’s report covers most kinds of infrastructure in Canada that are likely to be put under strain by the demands of extreme weather boosted by climate change – that includes roads, bridges, communications infrastructure, electrical grids, drinking water networks, and more.
The coming crises will be worsened by the effects of what the institute says is a long pattern of underfunding – and in the case of many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, the fact that needed infrastructure was never built in the first place.
The total cost to bring at-risk infrastructure up to speed could be as high as $250 billion, according to the institute.
“The good news, though, is that repairing and upgrading this infrastructure with climate-resilient designs and materials can save billions of dollars in the long run,” Ness says. “Repaving roads with resilient materials, for example, can reduce costs by over 90 per cent, and doing the same when updating electrical infrastructure can reduce costs by 80 per cent.”
The institute says governments need to be more proactive about publishing flood risk information, more conscious of resiliency and climate change when building or repairing infrastructure, and more mindful of including marginalized communities in their planning.
For his part, Ness says governments have been receptive to these kinds of recommendations, though getting from interest to action can be slow.
“When you show them the bill, and show them how much lower it could be in the long run if we respond quickly, the need to act is clear,” he says. “However, politicians who are trying to get reelected every four or five years often aren’t interested in spending money that will return benefits over 10, 20, or 50 years. Canadians need to advocate for those investments now so that we can secure a resilient future.”