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Flooding, severe weather the new normal thanks to climate change: doctor

'Climate change is real, and it is irreversible. It’s here to stay. We may slow down the rate of change, but we’re not going back,' says professor

In June of 2017, intense thunderstorms dumped an estimated 76 millimetres on parts of Bradford West Gwillimbury, the Holland Marsh and northern York Region, leading to localized flooding of fields, roads and homes.

Welcome to the new normal.

In Canada, climate change has meant more wildfires, and more unpredictable droughts, extreme heat events, extreme weather and storms, capable of dumping a month’s worth of rain in a matter of hours.

As Dr. Blair Feltmate, associate professor at the University of Waterloo and head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation (ICCA), recently told the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority’s Annual General Meeting: “The elephant in the room, from a climate change perspective, is… too much water in the wrong places.”

Combined with loss of natural wetlands, aging infrastructure, and unprepared homeowners, the result can be catastrophic – as measured in insurance payouts for property damage due to flooding.

From the 1980s to 2008, insurance companies could expect to pay out between $200 million and $500 million per year in damages, well below the revenues brought in by insurance premiums. Since 2009, the average annual payout has been closer to $1 billion, with losses exceeding premiums in eight out of the nine last years.

“Fifty-five percent of these losses are due to water – flooding, and flooded basements,” Feltmate said.

It’s not just the financial cost. The rise in damages is “a metaphor for the risk that is in the system,” Feltmate said. A risk that could have increasingly negative impacts on homeowners, businesses and municipalities.

A growing number of homes are no longer able to get flood insurance because “they live in an area that’s been flooded repeatedly, or have made claims,” he said. Without flood insurance, the average $43,000 cost of a flooded basement falls on the homeowner, or the municipality.

Not every homeowner can bear the financial burden. The result, in the long term, could be a spike in mortgage defaults.

Then there’s the “psycho-social” impact, Feltmate said.

ICCA interviewed homeowners who experienced flooding and those who did not, three years after a flood event, and found that there was a lasting impact on the homeowners whose basements had flooded. They were more anxious, more likely to get up repeatedly in the night to check the basement for flooding during a storm, more likely to miss work – impacting life and health.

ICCA, supported by a grant from Intact Financial, one of Canada’s largest insurers, was established to look at the impact of climate change, but more specifically, to find ways to mitigate those impacts.

“My primary interest is to de-risk Canada, relative to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events" by finding ways to create flood-resilient communities, Feltmate said.

“It’s not like Canada’s asleep at the switch, at this point. We’re actually doing a lot,” he said. That includes identifying ways to “better prepare our homes and infrastructure for the extreme weather that’s happening today,” and in the future.

It was back in 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century,” pointing a finger at the ongoing consumption of fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to global warming of 1 C in the last 100 years – not a lot, said Feltmate, until you consider that it took only a five degree difference to plunge the Earth into an ice age.

Currently just more than 80 per cent of global energy supply comes from the consumption of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas, he said. That percentage is likely to remain constant in at least the next two decades, but the expected increase in human population of 1.2 billion more people will lead to an overall increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

At the G20 meeting on climate, held in Argentina earlier this year, Feltmate spoke to a delegate from India, who he said told him an estimated 400 million people in the country were without access to electricity or clean water – something expected to change in the coming years through the introduction of coal-fired hydro plants.

“That’s the reality – and how can you deny them that?” Feltmate said.

Although delegates at the G20 summit embraced the concept of renewable energy, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction, all basically said that progress would be “at our own pace, with our own verification, and at a rate that will not impact our economy," he said. 

“Climate change is real, and it is irreversible. It’s here to stay. We may slow down the rate of change, but we’re not going back," Feltmate concluded.

The only thing to do while new technologies for carbon capture are being developed is to be prepared and offset flood risks, he said. 

The Intact centre is working with the National Research Council of Canada, Standards Council of Canada and CSA Group to come up with new standards - “practical, cost-effective ways to mitigate flood risk.”

Information is available for individual homeowners, new greenfield development and subdivisions, and, just this past week, community retrofits. A set of standards for commercial businesses will be released later this year.

“Even when you look at a standard, the question is, 'So what? What do you do with it?'" Feltmate said. It is his job to travel the country, communicating with planners, politicians and homeowners, “to take this standard and turn it into practical reality.”

One of the first steps has been to establish a new course, primarily for home inspectors, that provides training in basement flood risk assessment – something that, until now, has not even been on the radar for inspectors.

The course, offered at Seneca and Fleming colleges this past fall, will be online and open to anyone – homeowners, as well as the 40,000 home inspectors across the country.

There are plenty of “very simple actions that can be implemented by anyone that’s reasonably handy on a Saturday or Sunday… for next to no money,” that can reduce the risk of basement flooding, said Feltmate.

Keeping storm sewer gratings clear of leaves and debris, sloping land away from the house, extending downspouts at least three metres from the foundation, and installing backwater or check valves on plumbing can all prevent thousands of dollars in damages.

Feltmate also called on planners and developers to recognize the importance of natural infrastructure – wetlands, floodways and deltas – in reducing flooding. By retaining, restoring or building natural infrastructure, it is possible to reduce flood damage by up to 29 per cent in rural areas, and 38 per cent in urban areas, he said – a “significant” improvement.

He was preaching to the converted at the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority’s Annual General Meeting. 

The conservation authority has long recognized the importance of flood mitigation and the value of using natural infrastructure to reduce flooding, said the organization’s CAO Mike Walters, at the AGM. It has worked with municipalities like the Town of Uxbridge, which has launched a multi-million dollar project to take “the entire downtown out of the floodplain.”

“We’re taking the entire downtown out of the floodplain,” embodying Feltmate’s principles of flood risk reduction, said Walters.

“Extreme weather and flood risk will get more challenging moving forward. Period,” said Feltmate. By including mitigation and modifications in municipal planning, it could be possible to get ahead of Mother Nature.

For “doable” floodproofing ideas, visit the ICCA website at

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Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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