Canada is the only G7 country without a nationwide flood forecasting system and, according to scientists, the absence of such a system has come at a cost.
“Damages from floods and droughts have shot through the roof,” said John Pomeroy, an expert in hydrology and the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan.
According to Pomeroy, the total amount of money spent recovering from climate-related floods and wildfires in Canada prior to the year 2000 was about $1 billion.
However, since then, he estimates the cost of these disasters has skyrocketed to roughly $30 billion — much of which has been paid for by federal and provincial tax dollars.
And while many people, such as those affected by the floods sweeping their way across eastern Canada this spring, may see cleaning up and deciding whether to rebuild after flooding as top priorities, Pomeroy says the government should also be focused on how to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place.
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The best way to do this, he says, is to better track flooding and other catastrophic water events before they happen — this includes droughts and wildfires.
A ‘path to solutions’
When it comes to future damages caused by climate-related flooding, droughts, and wildfires, “no one is prepared,” Pomeroy said.
But making sure communities have the resources they need to better predict and possibly prevent damage from pending disasters is a critical part of preparing for a warming future, he added.
And while Pomeroy says all provinces and territories track water flows “to some degree,” some regions of the country, particularly those with smaller populations and those with limited revenue, lack the resources and expertise needed to do the job properly.
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To fix this, he and other water security experts — including those from Global Water Futures, a team of climate researchers led by Pomeroy — are urging the federal government to create the Canada Water Security Centre and the National Water Security Commission.
Together, these new organizations would monitor potential flooding and droughts, while providing scientific advice to communities across the country on how to best prevent disasters.
They would also help manage future water resources — such as deciding when and where to build new reservoirs — and help resolve potential disputes between provinces, territories and Indigenous communities that share common waterways, Pomeroy said.
“The federal government has abdicated its responsibilities [for flood monitoring] to provinces,” said Bob Sandford, a researcher in water and climate security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
“And they have just moved us further away from a cohesive solution,” he said.
To ensure the changes are permanent, Pomeroy and Sandford also recommend the government amend the Canada Water Act. They say any changes should also guarantee First Nations and Indigenous communities have equal say in managing water resources in the future.
Feds working with provinces and territories
The government, meanwhile, says it is reviewing the recommendations put forward by the researchers, but said it cannot comment on whether any of the proposals will be implemented.
A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) did, however, say the government continues to work with the provinces and territories to improve flood-mapping tools and has renewed nearly all of its existing agreements that govern water management across the country.
“ECCC’s National Hydrological Services (NHS), in collaboration with its provincial and territorial partners, is responsible for monitoring and understanding water quantity information across Canada,” said ECCC spokesperson Veronica Petrò.
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“This crucial information is used by provinces and territories to develop flood forecasts, provide updates on current conditions and issue warnings,” she said.
Petrò says the government is also working to implement its Emergency Management Strategy in collaboration with provinces and territories. This includes efforts to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters — including weather related emergencies and natural disasters, she said.
The government also invested $89.7 million in 2018 to improve water services nationally. This included money for improving long-range water forecasts, testing and implementing new technologies for water management and expanding technical and engineering advice.
But according to Pomeroy and Sandford, these changes alone won’t be enough. To combat the pending effects of climate change, and to help mitigate the cost of future disasters, they say Canada needs a new system for tracking floods and other climate disasters.
And they say Canada needs this system now.
“We did muddle by before with our twentieth-century climate and our relatively low population, but that’s simply not adequate for the types of extreme events we’re experiencing now,” Pomeroy said.