Restor­ing what we ru­ined may be best de­fence

Cli­mate change is here and cost­ing us bil­lions, but what can we do about it?

Calgary Herald - - OPINION - DAPHNE BRAMHAM Daphne Bramham is a jour­nal­ist with the Van­cou­ver Sun. [email protected]­media.com

There are few more con­ser­va­tive peo­ple than those who de­ter­mine risk in or­der for in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to set their rates.

They don’t need to look at the im­ages of winds lash­ing the East Coast of the United States or the mega-storm rip­ping across Asia and ques­tion whether cli­mate change is real. They’ve al­ready crunched the num­bers and seen the trend lines.

Prop­erty and ca­su­alty in­sur­ance pay­outs in Canada have more than quadru­pled in the last nine years to an av­er­age of $1.8 bil­lion. Be­tween 1983 and 2008, they av­er­aged $405 mil­lion a year.

While it’s trou­bling for the in­sur­ance in­dus­try, it’s fi­nan­cially cat­a­strophic for in­di­vid­u­als and for gov­ern­ments that bear three to four times that cost.

Public Safety Canada re­ported the num­ber of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in­creased dra­mat­i­cally be­tween 1970 and 2015. Canada’s au­di­tor gen­eral re­ported that be­tween 2009 and 2015, the dis­as­ter-re­lated com­pen­sa­tion paid out to the prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries was greater than any of the pre­vi­ous 39 fis­cal years com­bined.

But there are bil­lions of dol­lars more pend­ing as class-ac­tion law­suits make their way through the courts. Among them are: a $950-mil­lion one brought by 4,000 res­i­dents of Man­i­toba First Na­tions fol­low­ing the 2011 flood for neg­li­gence, nui­sance and breach of treaty rights; a 15-per­son neg­li­gence suit against a Maple Ridge, B.C., devel­oper, con­trac­tor, two en­gi­neer­ing firms and the city of Maple Ridge af­ter a 2010 flood; a $900-mil­lion suit by Muskoka res­i­dents against On­tario al­leg­ing neg­li­gence; and two suits — one in Que­bec and one in On­tario — al­leg­ing floods re­sulted from neg­li­gence in the de­sign, con­struc­tion, op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance of storm and san­i­tary sewer sys­tems.

Canada’s ex­pe­ri­ence is far from unique. Glob­ally, in­sur­ance claims for nat­u­ral dis­as­ter dam­ages hit their high­est mark in 2017 — US$135 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Mu­nich Re, the world’s largest rein­sur­ance com­pany.

In hu­man terms, the cost is an es­ti­mated 10,000 lives.

Dis­as­ter costs are ris­ing so quickly in­sur­ers have started look­ing at how best gov­ern­ments and in­di­vid­u­als can adapt. The In­sur­ance Bureau of Canada hired re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo, the In­tact Cen­tre on Cli­mate Adap­ta­tion and the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment to look at Canada’s most ex­pen­sive and ex­ten­sive prob­lem — flood­ing — and come up with the most cost-ef­fec­tive mit­i­ga­tion mea­sures.

The study re­leased last week ac­knowl­edges that to com­bat Canada’s flood­ing due to heav­ier than av­er­age rain­fall and sea-level rise, higher dikes, di­ver­sion chan­nels, dams and bet­ter waste­water and sewage treat­ment plants are needed.

But it con­cluded that in many places restor­ing shore­lines, riverbeds and wet­lands to what they were be­fore we in­ter­fered with them is both cheaper and more ben­e­fi­cial.

Among the study’s star­tling statis­tics is that in B.C., 85 per cent of wet­lands have been lost in the South Okana­gan and over 70 per cent of the orig­i­nal wet­lands have dis­ap­peared in the lower Fraser Val­ley. While B.C. has had to con­tend with un­prece­dented wild­fires the past two years, it has so far been spared from ma­jor flood­ing.

Hav­ing partly built our way into th­ese prob­lems, the in­cli­na­tion might be to build our­selves out. But the In­sur­ance Bureau’s re­port, Com­bat­ing Canada’s Ris­ing Flood Costs, says con­ser­va­tion and restora­tion of so-called “nat­u­ral in­fra­struc­ture” — wet­lands, forests and flood­plains — of­fers other ben­e­fits that can in­clude habi­tat cre­ation or im­prove­ment, recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties and even sav­ings through car­bon se­ques­tra­tion.

Gib­sons, B.C., up the coast from Van­cou­ver, is one of the re­port’s case stud­ies. It was the first mu­nic­i­pal­ity in North Amer­ica to de­clare nat­u­ral in­fra­struc­ture as mu­nic­i­pal as­sets. It used an as­sess­ment tool estab­lished by the Mu­nic­i­pal Nat­u­ral As­sets Ini­tia­tive to eval­u­ate the worth of its aquifer and the nat­u­ral ponds. What it found was main­tain­ing and mon­i­tor­ing them to pro­vide stormwa­ter stor­age costs about $30,000 a year. En­gi­neer­ing and build­ing a stor­age fa­cil­ity would have cost nearly $4 mil­lion.

With mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions un­der­way, it’s a timely re­port that raises key ques­tions about how we have done ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and how it could be done. It also un­der­scores the ur­gent need for all lev­els of gov­ern­ment to adapt phys­i­cally and fis­cally to cli­mate change.

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