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In Canada, flooding happens because governments let it happen

The ongoing flooding in Quebec and Ontario is a perennial natural occurrence, as predictable as the blooms on a cherry tree. Equally predictable is the fact that some of the flood waters have damaged homes and buildings located near rivers and lakes, and forced the evacuations of more than 1,500 people.

It's predictable because, in Canada, we do almost nothing to prevent flood damage in urban areas. As a consequence, flooding is the "most costly hazard in terms of urban property damage, and water-related losses have surpassed fire and theft as the principal source of property insurance claims," according to a new study from the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Some of the flooding is caused by severe storms that overload antiquated municipal sewage systems, as was the case in Toronto in 2013. But most is of the overland variety, like the massive flooding in Calgary the same year, when the Bow and Elbow rivers overran their banks.

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When it comes to overland flooding, governments do little to mitigate the risks. On the contrary. The provinces allow municipalities to build in high-risk floodplains, and then, along with Ottawa, encourage this behaviour by providing taxpayer-funded disaster relief when the inevitable happens.

The Munk report says that, today, 1.8 million households are at "very high risk" of flood damage. Payouts under Ottawa's Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements, which cover some of the costs of disasters incurred by provinces and territories, are expected to rise to $650-million per year, largely due to flooding. It's madness. But it may also be too late to do anything about it.

In the late 1970s, Ottawa and the provinces spent $50-million mapping the towns and cities most at risk for flooding. All levels of government were then supposed to discourage development in designated flood plains, and agree that any homes built there would not be eligible for disaster assistance in the event of a flood.

The Flood Damage Reduction Program, as it was called, is long forgotten. One of the designated cities was Gatineau, Quebec, the site of some of the worst flooding this spring. Homes built in the floodplain along the Ottawa River are now under threat. The federal government has sent in troops, and no doubt it will soon be offering disaster assistance. That's the way it works in Canada.

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