Costly floods shine a
Spotlight on flood
management in Canada

This June 2019 marks the 6-year anniversary of the Bow and Elbow rivers breaching their banks and triggering the 2013 ‘super flood’ that swallowed streets and homes of Calgary and southern Alberta.

For 14 days, the bustling, vibrant, densely-populated city of Calgary was in a state of emergency. Over 80,000 Calgarians were evacuated from 35,000 homes and businesses, and over a month later, nearly 10,000 residents were still unable to return home. This disaster, ranking in the top three costliest insured natural disasters in Canadian history, incurred insured losses of $2 billion (CAD) but total economic losses upwards of $6 billion (Meckbach, 2019; Tait, 2018; Dangerfield, 2019; Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2017; Mortillaro, 2014).

In the run up to this anniversary, several provinces of Canada – Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick - experienced extreme spring floods in April 2019, which forced the evacuation of over 9,500 residents across Quebec alone (FloodList News in Americas, 2019).

Canada has a long history of flooding and to have examples of devastating flood events in such recent memory further highlights the urgent need for flood tools that support improvements in flood resiliency and management strategies.

Above: The floods of June 2013 devastated Calgary, Alberta.

The cost of flood in Canada

Flooding is Canada’s costliest natural peril, costing taxpayers $20 billion (CAD) in damages between 2003 and 2012 (Gaur, et al., 2018; Wollensak, 2019). Over the last five decades, flood-related property damage accounted for 78% of federal disaster assistance costs (Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2016). The Canadian government’s Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement (DFAA) provides financial assistance to provincial and territorial governments for large scale natural disasters. Figure 1 depicts historical flood-related payments that have increased markedly from 2005-2014 relative to the last four decades.

For every $3 the Canadian government pays to recover public infrastructure from severe weather damage, it's estimated insurers pay at least a dollar for home and business insurance claims (Barrasa, 2019). In fact, flood damages surpass costs from fire and theft as the leading source of property insurance claims.

What’s more, it’s believed that the frequency and severity of flood events will continue to escalate. Population growth, changing landscapes- ranging from the destruction of wetlands and forests to the increase in urbanisation- and infrastructure development based on obsolete building codes are among the issues snowballing flood risks (IBC, 2015). Some environmentalists and notable government representatives have linked Canadian floods in 2017 and 2019 to climate change-related weather extremes (Bilefsky & Austen, 2019). Climatic changes relating to the increasing temperatures, spring snowmelt, and maximum river flows (Gaur, et al., 2018) lend credence to alarm bells like those sounded by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) in a recent statement: “climate change is a real and present danger costing [the] government - and Canadians - hundreds of millions of dollars every year” (Insurance Bureau of Canada, 2016; Kimmel, 2016).

The rising trend of flood-related damage and pay-outs is one of many factors that has galvanized efforts to improve flood management and resilience in Canada (Kimmel, 2016).


Figure 1: Historical payments for flood damage have increased markedly in the past decade (Mcclearn, 2019).

The challenges to flood management in Canada

The IBC’s 2015 report, The financial management of flood risk, outlines three main challenges Canada faces. First, the IBC observes that the nature of flood insurance is generally governed by adverse selection, whereby insurance is sought out by properties that recurrently flood. This ultimately results in either residential flood insurance premiums that are actuarially sound but unaffordable or no offer of insurance at all.

Second, the IBC identifies that flood losses are often linked to under investment in public infrastructure, ineffective asset management, out-of-date building codes and poor land-use planning. It calls for a government-level revamp of flood risk planning and mitigation. Third, successful flood-related strategies hinge on flood map data in order to assess risks prior to a flood occurring (IBC, 2015).

This third challenge - the need for up-to-date and readily accessible flood maps- has long been recognised in several public spheres. Public Safety Canada published a 2017 federal government report stating, “Canada lacks effective flood hazard maps, which are considered essential risk assessment tools” (Mcclearn, 2019). The University of Waterloo also released study findings that an estimated one-third of the Canadian population is living in flood-prone areas. It recognised that quality, well-communicated flood maps prove to be valuable tools for stakeholders, and yet many existing maps were old, not digitised and inaccessible publicly (Henstra, et al., 2019).

Recent progress in flood data

Various sectors across Canada have worked with JBA to overcome this gap in quality flood data availability. In 2015, JBA worked with the IBC to release Canada-wide fluvial and pluvial flood maps and defended areas data (IBC, 2017). And, in 2016, JBA’s Canada storm surge and tide data became available. These 30 metre resolution maps are based on the best-available terrain data and innovative, national-scale hydrology methods that consider snow cover, rainfall, historical river levels, extreme sea levels and land use. The flood maps are updated regularly to incorporate new input data and methodology innovations. They have also led to the derivation of other flood-related tools, including post-event response flood footprints, illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2: An extract of the 2019 JBA Canada 30m flood footprint. The area illustrated is Ottawa in Ontario, Canada, derived from JBA's national Canada Flood Map (JBA Risk Management Limited™).

Moreover, Canada’s University of Waterloo has regularly worked with JBA since 2016 to evaluate present-day and future flood-related issues. In a project exploring the economic impacts of climate change for Halifax, Nova Scotia, JBA contributed our high-resolution Canada Flood Map and Canada Flood Pricing Data™. The research team, led by Professor Jason Thistlethwaite, published a 2018 paper demonstrating several valuable conclusions, including the significance of climate change on future economic impacts, the need to understand present-day risk through use of high-resolution hazard data and the benefits of using a probabilistic catastrophe model to explore climate change impacts (Thistlethwaite, et al., 2018).

In the last year, JBA also participated in a joint Canada Water Network, IBC and Natural Resources Canada project investigating how pluvial flood risk estimation can be improved through the sharing of flood risk management data across various sectors. The modelling evidence obtained demonstrates the added value that an interchange of data provides to Canadian municipalities and the insurance industry.

These are just three examples of the many milestones being made in flood data innovation and practical application - which are key for improved flood management in Canada.

Actively looking forward

On a global scale, flood maps and other flood risk data are valuable inputs, underpinning public policy and flood management strategies including flood mitigation, land use planning, emergency management and public awareness (IBC, 2015; Oreskes, et al., 1994). High-quality data are invaluable and fundamental tools that can be translated into active measures that protect Canada’s population and economy. Improvements in this area may not occur quickly, but certainly several industries are welcoming changes that will lead to more informed decision-making.

JBA’s data is used widely in Canada by various sectors including insurance, local water authorities, government and science. We provide Canada-wide, fluvial, pluvial and storm surge flood maps as well as Defended Areas data, pricing data, event set data and hydrological accumulation zones.

To learn more about identifying your high-risk properties or our other flood services, please get in touch.

References

Barrasa, V. 2019. Winter Storm Causes Over $124 Million in Insured Damage Across Eastern Canada [online] Available at: http://www.ibc.ca/ns/resources/media-centre/media-releases/winter-storm-causes-over-124-million-in-insured-damage-across-eastern-canada [28 May 2019]

Bilefsky, D. & Austen, I. 2019. New York Times [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/world/canada/canada-flooding.html [28 May 2019]

Bryan-Baynes, E. 2019. Quebec announces revamped flooding compensation program [online] Available at: https://globalnews.ca/news/5171302/quebec-flooding-compensation/ [28 May 2019]

Croteau, J. 2015. Researchers studying children affected by 2013 floods [online] Available at: https://globalnews.ca/video/2069284/researchers-studying-children-affected-by-2013-floods [24 May 2019]

Dangerfield, K. 2019. 6 of the worst floods in Canadian history [online] Available at: https://globalnews.ca/news/5216176/worst-floods-canadian-history/ [28 May 2019]

Environment and Climate Change Canada. 2017. Canada's top ten weather stories of 2013 [online] Available at: https://ec.gc.ca/meteo-weather/default.asp?lang=En&n=5BA5EAFC-1&offset=2&toc=show [24 May 2019]

FloodList News in Americas. 2019. Canada – Thousands Evacuated After Rivers Flood in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ontario [online] Available at: http://floodlist.com/america/canada-flood-in-quebec-new-brunswick-ontario-april-may-2019 [22 May 2019]

Gaur, A., Gaur, A. & Simonovic, S. 2018. Future Changes in Flood Hazards across Canada under a Changing Climate. Water, 10(1441), pp. 1-21.

Henstra, D., Minano, A. & Thistlethwaite, J. 2019. Communicating disaster risk? An evaluation of theavailability and quality of flood maps. Natural Hazards Earth Systems Science, Volume 19, pp. 313-323.

Insurance Bureau of Canada. 2015. The financial management of flood risk [online] Available at: http://assets.ibc.ca/Documents/Natural%20Disasters/The_Financial_Management_of_Flood_Risk.pdf [24 May 2019]

Insurance Bureau of Canada. 2016. IBC Responds to Parliamentary Budget Officer Report on Cost of Climate Change [online] Available at: https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/ibc-responds-to-parliamentary-budget-officer-report-on-cost-of-climate-change-570131271.html [22 May 2019]

Insurance Bureau of Canada. 2017. IBC steps up to contribute to a national flood program - Outlines significant costs of climate change [online] Available at: http://www.ibc.ca/bc/resources/media-centre/media-releases/ibc-steps-up-to-contribute-to-a-national-flood-program

Kimmel, A. 2016. IBC Responds to Parliamentary Budget Officer Report on Cost of Climate Change [online] Available at: http://www.ibc.ca/nt/resources/media-centre/media-releases/ibc-responds-to-parliamentary-budget-officer-report-on-cost-of-climate-change [28 May 2019]

Mcclearn, M. 2019. Poor flood-risk maps, or none at all, are keeping Canadian communities in flood-prone areas [online] Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-poor-flood-risk-maps-or-none-at-all-are-keeping-canadian-communities/ [28 May 2019]

Meckbach, G. 2019. How much of the Quebec flooding is insurable? [online] Available at: https://www.canadianunderwriter.ca/claims/thousands-of-properties-affected-by-quebec-flooding-1004162545/?utm_campaign=3918&utm_medium=email&utm_source=EloquaCAIRW000000038061 [28 May 2019]

Mortillaro, N. 2014. 5 of the worst floods in Canadian history [online] Available at: https://globalnews.ca/news/1438743/the-5-worst-floods-in-canadian-history/ [24 May 2019]

Oreskes, N., Shrader-Frechette, K. & Belitz, K. 1994. Verification, validation, and confirmation of numerical models in the earth sciences. Science, pp. 641-646.

Parliamentary Budget Officer. 2016. Estimate of the Average Annual Cost for Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements due to Weather Events, Ottawa: Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Tait, C. 2018. Alberta flood's record costs will likely drive up insurance premiums [online] Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/alberta-flood-damage-set-canadian-record-insurance-group-says/article14461509/ [28 May 2019]

Thistlethwaite, J. et al. 2018. Application of re/insurance models toestimate increases in flood risk due to climate change. Geoenvironmental Disasters, 5(8).

Weber, B. 2018. Most Canadian cities are not prepared to cope with climate change, study finds [online]
Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-study-finds-most-canadian-cities-do-not-have-adequate-plans-to-cope/ [24 May 2019]

Wollensak, M. 2019. Updating Canada’s Flood Maps Would Help Mitigate Risk, Prof Says [online] Available at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/updating-canadas-flood-maps-would-help-mitigate-risk-prof-says_2900954.html [22 May 2019]

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