By Daniel Henstra and Jason Thistlethwaite
Canada needs a strategy to increase public awareness of flood risk and encourage people to protect their property from flood impacts.
Flooding is Canada’s most common and most costly hazard, yet Canadians are typically unaware of their flood risk and are caught off-guard by the economic burden that flooding imposes. In actuality, Canadians personally bear roughly $600 million in flood-related losses every year. This suggests we need to do better in informing Canadians about their flood risk and to engage them in managing this risk.
Canada’s Flood Risk Awareness Gap
In 2016, our research team at the University of Waterloo conducted a national survey of Canadians in communities designated as “flood risk areas,” meaning communities subject to recurrent and severe flooding. We asked respondents to share their perceptions of flood risk and their attitudes towards actions to protect themselves against flood damage.
More than 80% of homeowners believe they have a responsibility to protect their property from flood damage. Despite this sense of duty, however, the adoption of property-level protection measures is low: less than 30% of homeowners report actions like the use of sump pumps and water-resistant materials in basements. Insurance for overland flooding became available in Canada in 2015, but only 23% of homeowners express interest in purchasing flood insurance, and 67% want to pay less than $100 per year. Roughly half of homeowners do not know what kinds of water damage is covered in their insurance policy.
Canadians are not taking action, in part, because they lack awareness about the risks they face1. Of the 2,300 homeowners surveyed, only 6% know that their home is in a designated flood risk area. When asked how concerned they are about flood risk, half express no concern at all. And an alarmingly low number of homeowners—only 21%—believe that the risk of flooding will increase over the next 25 years.
The research evidence is clear that investing in property-level flood protection is much less expensive than restoring a property after a flood. But if we expect Canadians to play a role in flood risk management, then they must perceive flooding as a serious problem and acknowledge that they have a responsibility to protect themselves and their property. Improving public awareness of flood risk is also an important step toward meeting Canada’s commitment to the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, which identifies “understanding disaster risk” as its first priority.
Improving Flood Risk Awareness and Encouraging Responsibility
There are many ways to better engage Canadians in flood risk management, but the following are three specific mechanisms that have been the focus of our recent research.
Flood risk maps. International experience shows that flood risk maps are a crucial source of information for flood risk management. Although the primary beneficiaries of this information are professionals, they are also a valuable tool for increasing public awareness of flood risk and socializing citizens to share responsibility for risk reduction.
In a recent study, we used nine criteria to evaluate the quality of flood maps available to the public in Canadian communities located in designated flood risk areas. We found that most flood maps (62%) are low quality (meeting less than 50% of the criteria) and the highest score was 78% (seven of nine criteria met). The findings suggest that a more concerted effort to produce high-quality, publicly accessible flood maps is required to support Canada’s international commitment to disaster risk reduction.
Flood risk disclosure. Property disclosure offers a potential tool by which buyers can become informed about both a home’s history of flood damage and its exposure to future flood risk. Openly communicating flood risk information enables and motivates individuals to take protective action. Moreover, from an ethical standpoint, individuals should only be held responsible for managing their flood risk if they have been empowered through risk information to act in their own best interests.
Whereas property disclosure statements in some Canadian provinces, such as Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick, ask sellers whether the property has sustained previous damage from flooding, only Ontario’s Seller Property Information Statement includes a specific question about current flood exposure: “Is the property subject to flooding?” In their current form, therefore, property disclosure statements in Canada provide inadequate information for buyers to make educated decisions about flood risk.
Flood insurance. Insurance is an efficient, resilient and legitimate approach to flood disaster recovery. A pool of premiums ensures no individual is unfairly burdened with the cost, premiums can be lowered or raised to influence risk behaviour and, by paying the premium, property owners accept that they are responsible for financing their recovery. The problem is that households in high-risk areas—about 8-10% of Canadians—are largely uninsurable because premiums are too high for property owners to afford.
Our review of other countries’ approaches to supporting flood insurance in high-risk areas reveals two key lessons. First, publicly available flood risk maps encourage demand for insurance by promoting flood risk awareness and providing a transparent means to determine premium adjustments. Second, insurance availability and affordability hinge on the willingness of governments to support flood risk mitigation in high-risk areas. By reducing property-owners’ financial burden of recovery, flood insurance can encourage more occupation of flood-prone areas, so there is a continued need for public investment in flood mitigation.
Effective flood risk management requires a concerted strategy to make Canadians aware of their flood risk and encourage them to take some responsibility for protecting their property from flood impacts. This article highlighted three tools that could improve flood risk management: public flood risk maps, flood risk disclosure, and flood insurance for high-risk properties. These mechanisms would contribute to fulfilling Canada’s commitment to the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction. They also reflect the priorities in the recently-released Emergency Management Strategy for Canada, which include enhancing collaboration and coordination, improving understanding of disaster risk, and preventing and mitigating disasters.
Daniel Henstra is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. His research analyzes the multilevel governance of complex policy areas like emergency management and climate change adaptation.
 Risk awareness alone is typically insufficient to spur protective behaviour. Also important are transparently allocating responsibilities, embedding them in decision-making and instilling a sense of personal accountability for flood risk reduction.