With the increasing severity and frequency of flood events across Canada, it is clear that a small number of homes and neighbourhoods will face risks that are untenable.
Repeated reconstruction of chronically flood-prone homes makes little sense, given the high public and human costs involved. In such circumstances, property buy-outs and relocation to safer ground seem the most rational and humane response, yet one that is quite problematic.
For the home building industry, evidence-based policy and a comprehensive approach to development planning are very important. Reactive ad hoc decisions by the government that impact homeowners and renters can easily disrupt markets and cause harm to communities and individual property owners. This is why the broader topic of flood resilience needs to be addressed in a transparent, thoughtful and comprehensive manner.
Among professionals immersed in climate resilience planning, the relocation of homes where flood risks cannot be mitigated is viewed as a necessary and prudent public policy tool.
Yet we would be naive to think such a policy can be put in place easily, or implemented in the absence of some level of social consensus around issues of necessity, fairness and equity.
Recent experience in Canada suggests that assumptions concerning the public’s awareness of flood risk and their potential acceptance of buy-out and relocation schemes may reflect wishful thinking.
Following the 2019 floods in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence River watersheds, the Québec government released new flood maps that placed tens of thousands of homes within high-risk flood zones (those facing a 20-year flood return period).
The Québec government will not allow the repair of properties where flood damage exceeds 50 per cent of the property value in such high-risk flood areas. A buy-out option for severely-damaged homes was somewhat arbitrarily announced by the Premier, capped at $200,000 per property.
Following this announcement, and the subsequent release of updated flood maps, many of those impacted were incensed. When provincial officials conducted public meetings on the flood maps, they were met by angry and incredulous residents. Some degree of retreat from the policy has ensued. The current state of affairs is less than clear.
This outcome should not have surprised the government. Introducing what appeared to many as ad hoc policy in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic flood was ill-advised at best, if not colossally insensitive.
This cautionary episode highlights one of the challenges facing climate resilience policy development across Canada. While we need a firmer grip on the science involved, and must work to develop sound technical responses, proper consideration of the human dimensions must not be overlooked.
“Addressing the impacts of a changing climate requires a foundation built on broad public understanding, trust in institutions, and citizen buy-in.”
Addressing the impacts of a changing climate requires a foundation built on broad public understanding, trust in institutions, and citizen buy-in. This is particularly the case with more impactful options such as property buy-outs and relocation, given individuals’ strong attachment to their homes, neighbourhood and community. This can only be built on good data and broad, respectful and open discussion of what it means.
As with other climate change hazards, effective flood risk mitigation begins with effective hazard mapping. As noted by Natural Resources Canada’s Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, “many existing flood maps in Canada are out-of-date and lack consideration of rapid urban development or the impacts of climate change”. Access to accurate flood maps varies by municipality nation-wide. Many are neither accurate nor publically available. Nor do they yet reflect the probable impacts of climate change.
Relying on antiquated modelling processes and decades-old data on rainfall, river flooding and storm surge is an increasingly reckless proposition.
Having all levels of government in Canada commit to developing and publicly sharing forward-looking flood maps that meet a common and high technical standard is a necessary prerequisite to effective public engagement around the need for increased flood resilience.
And it is only through building such broad public understanding of the future risks of flooding at the community level that the more difficult and emotionally-charged issue of property buy-outs and relocation can be responsibly approached.
Floods are consistently the most expensive extreme weather events in Canada. Recent trends suggest things will continue to get worse as climate shifts accelerate. Not all flood risks can be mitigated.
Canadians will expect transparency and a commitment to fairness from public officials proposing any sort of buy-out program, including details of how those impacted will be compensated and assisted.
Recent experience suggests it would be wise to conduct such discussions on the basis of widely understood and accepted data, and outside of the heated context of a disaster recovery process.