Canada lagging on severe weather disaster mitigation
Wednesday, June 1, 2016, 4:11 PM - According to a new audit report, the federal government is simply not doing enough to keep Canadians informed and safe when it comes to the impacts of severe weather.
In the past six years, from 2009 through 2015, the federal government has doled out $3.3 billion in relief funds to help provinces and territories recover from natural disasters, as part of the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program.
That is over one-third more than the $2.4 billion the program paid out, in total, in the 39 years prior, since its inception in 1970.
Credit: Office of the Auditor General of Canada
That's just one of the revelations presented in the new 2016 Spring Reports of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, released by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada on Tuesday.
This increased cost isn't simply a matter of economic inflation, though. The federal government's share of disaster relief funding increases as both the disaster's severity, and the number of people affected by it, increase. Thus, the stark contrast in federal spending over time, shown in the graph above, is a direct look at how much more severe these events are becoming in recent years, due to climate change.
Despite this increase in severity and impact of disasters, though, according to part 2 of the spring report - Mitigating the Impacts of Severe Weather - when it comes to helping provinces and communities prepare for these events ahead of time, federal agencies are lagging behind this trend.
"Overall, we concluded that the federal government has not made it a priority to help decision makers mitigate the anticipated impacts of severe weather," the report stated.
Among the report's findings:
• Decision makers need to be provided with the right information and tools needed for them to address long-term severe weather effects
• Key among these is the development and maintenance of Intensity-Duration-Frequency (IDF) curves, to give decision makers an idea of how often a particular region or community experiences severe weather events
• National Building Codes need to be updated to incorporate climate change trends
• Floodplain map guidelines and standards are in need of updating, and consistent application across all provinces and territories
• With federal encouragement, provinces and territories should be investing more in projects that reduce severe weather impacts
• Federal, provincial and territorial mitigation projects need to focus more on improving infrastructure resiliency
"One thing comes through clearly in these findings," Julie Gelfand, Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, wrote in her perspective document on Tuesday, "for all that the federal government is doing in its role as a provider of information, funding, programs and tools to decision makers, it has not put in place all the elements that are required to ensure that climate change considerations are effectively integrated into infrastructure and disaster mitigation programs, policies, and operations. This makes it difficult for provinces, territories, and municipalities to confidently plan for the future."
"The recommendations provided in our reports are broad and far-reaching," she added, "ranging from incorporating climate change values into the National Building Code, to the need to ensure that environmental risks - including the risks associated with climate change - are adequately considered and managed."
Mitigation vs Relief
Why is mitigation emphasized over relief and recovery funding? The old saying that starts "An ounce of prevention" comes to mind.
When communities are devastated by severe weather - tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts and even wildfires - and the government steps in to assist the region in its recovery, this has a profound effect on the national economy.
According to a 2014 report from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, in mid- to high-income countries (of which Canada ranks as one of the latter), disasters increase national budget deficits by an average of 25 per cent. This increases the burden on taxpayers and dampens long-term economic growth for the nation.
The country certainly cannot abandon these communities in their time of need, however. This is where mitigation comes in.
Based on Public Safety Canada estimates, the Auditor General's report says that for every dollar put into mitigation, recovery costs are lowered by between $3 and $5. This results in an overall lower post-disaster taxpayer burden, and less long-term impact on national economic growth.
There is an unusual problem noted in the report, however. Provinces and territories have not been taking adequate advantage of available federal funds for disaster mitigation, and even when they have applied for this assistance, little to none of the funding has actually been paid.
Since 2011, $253 million has been set aside by the federal government, in three different programs, to support mitigation programs. Of that amount, $114 million was applied for, $110 million of it was approved, but only $25 million has actually been paid out.
Similarly, of the $160 million in mitigation funding available since 2008, via the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, only $13 million had been applied for, and none of that money has actually been paid.
If both funds had been fully allocated to mitigation programs, based on the estimate from Public Safety Canada, the federal government could have saved somewhere between $1 billlion and $2 billion, of the $3.3 billion it spent on disaster relief since 2008.
Federal Ministries Respond
When presented with the Auditor General's recommendations, the government agencies the report focused on - Environment and Climate Change Canada, Public Safety Canada and National Research Council Canada - all agreed with the rather frank assessments of their current shortcomings.
Embedded in the report are each agency's new commitments to address these issues - to increase our awareness of the risks of severe weather, to update floodplain maps, to provide up-to-date climate data for the upcoming revision of national building codes, and to improve our nation's infrastructure.
Along with these, a promise to help provinces and territories place a higher priority on mitigation projects, by providing a better understanding of the risks, and by examining the current programs for ways to improve access to the funding.
"At a time when scientists are predicting that extreme weather events, with impacts that include floods, droughts, and forest fires, will become more frequent and intense, putting an aging and weakened infrastructure to an ever more difficult test... the time is ripe to consider the findings of the audits presented in these reports," Gelfand wrote. "They could not come at a better time."