Are the costs of disasters accelerating?

By: Larry Pearce, CRHNET Executive Director, and Bert Struik

The plethora of recent disasters resulting from floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, to name just a few, makes it seem like we are experiencing more disasters with higher costs than ever before.

Earthquakes have an ominous cache of destruction associated with them, invoking fear, damage and death. The 2011 Tōhoku Japan earthquake and tsunami are an example of the destruction that can result from a major earthquake. Indeed, as our populations have grown and become more urbanized, the impacts of earthquakes have become more extreme. Be that as it may, if a major earthquake occurs in the middle of the dessert or the Great Plains, regardless of the magnitude, our infrastructure and populations suffer few effects. If it occurs in a major city like Vancouver, the impact could be devastating. Fortunately, better building codes, new materials and construction techniques have increased disaster resilience and helped to lessen the potential impacts.

However, the recent devastating floods in Calgary and surrounding areas are just one of many recent damaging floods right across the globe. Additionally there are associated looming threats of drought and pestilence. The consequences of the increased frequency of disasters from extreme weather and rising temperatures do not bode well for our country, and for that matter, the rest of the world. Just looking at a list of recent floods, one sees that almost all countries in the Americas have, in the past decade, been subjected to major floods and the resulting damage and concomitant costs, experienced both economically as well as socially.

Flood disaster events over the past decade worldwide have been doubling in frequency and the costs of lost productivity, interrupted commerce and social disruption have increased societal stress. Over the past two years in Canada we have had floods in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick plus a number of small villages in the Northern territories have been affected.

Here in British Columbia we are always at risk, and have had major floods almost every year. The Fraser Valley, bisected by the mighty Fraser River, will again experience another flood as extreme as in 1948. The cities in the north of the province, and in particular in the Fraser River drainage basin, face annual flood threats. Mother Nature, the harbinger of these disasters, could care less where you live or your societal or economic status, race, or political affiliation.

However, those jurisdictions that are financially stable have a greater capacity to withstand the impacts that nature can wreak on our country, cities and villages. Can we continue to absorb the losses caused by these disastrous floods? The financial burden will soon become untenable and we have a limited capability to offset the costs. Data shows that floods in Manitoba in the past years have been responsible for over $1 billion in damages. If this trend continues, we can expect more flood-losses impacting our major cities.

With predictions of climate change we can expect more heat waves, frigid conditions, drought and intense storms. What can be done? “Mitigation” is a word tossed around as a way to deal with, and lessen the impact of, various disasters. It is an essential element in the fight to offset the effects of floods, but not necessarily the panacea.

For example, we build dykes, kilometres and kilometres of dykes, along rivers and sea fronts: dykes which often fail. We construct water diverting channels and walls of sand bags that often cause trouble upstream and downstream. We even elevate structures to avoid inundation of critical infrastructure and, in some cases, move structures or whole communities out of harm’s way. These steps do some good, often only in the short-term.

An essential method to assist in determining cost effective and long-term mitigation decisions is to identify the natural hazard risk – by understanding the probabilities of the hazards and the exposure and vulnerabilities of our structures and people to those hazards. These mitigation options include decisions about land usage made during the planning process and, in many cases, not situating or building structures in flood plains. Easy to say; however, hundreds of cities and villages large and small with buildings, homes and infrastructure are now located in, and being built in, flood plains due to out-of-date flood mapping, unsatisfactory by-laws or political pressure. Just ask the residents of High River Alberta!

What about insurance one may ask? Is that a way to mitigate the impacts of floods? Insurance is certainly a tool for mitigation; one can purchase earthquake insurance, crop insurance, fire insurance, car insurance and life insurance; however, residents are unable to purchase flood insurance in Canada. Although Canada has a National Mitigation strategy, flood insurance is not available i.e., in military parlance it is MIA. The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated that as weather patterns change, costs could escalate to $10 billion for a one in 500 year flood event.

The Calgary floods teach us that construction in flood plains cannot be allowed to continue and related disaster mitigation, recovery and response planning has to be increased by all levels of government. The costs of disasters are increasing; therefore, if you fail to plan you plan to fail!

 

References:

Geological Survey of Canada. (2001). The impact of climate change on rivers and river processes in Canada. Bulletin 555, 58 pages (1 sheet); 1 CD-ROM, doi:10.4095/211891

Vancouver Sun: Saturday July 6th 2013 “Cost and severity of natural disasters is mounting.”