Climate change impacts are felt every day around the world and reveal the human vulnerability to the environment in which we reside. The severity and probability of natural disasters increases at a much greater rate than our ability to overcome them. Every year we witness how wildfires, droughts, floods, earthquakes and extremely high and low temperatures around the world hit records of devastation, both for human lives and material costs. In Canada alone, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reported an estimated $4.9 billion in damage in 2016; and following current trends, the Federal Government expects that the total annual cost to the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements for weather events in the next five years will be around $902 million. While the impacts of disasters are locally managed, a concerted global effort is required to truly prevent their incidence and mitigate climate change. For this reason, each year on 13 October, the United Nations celebrates the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
Since its adoption in 1989 by the UN General Assembly, the International Day for Disaster Reduction is celebrated annually to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and preparedness. On an organizational level, the UN Office for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) is the international body responsible for coordinating efforts on international framework agreements on disaster reduction and undertakes activities to promote disaster prevention and mitigation. As for international guideline, the Sendai Framework, adopted in June 2015, directs the international work on disaster risk reduction, including setting global targets and priorities aligned with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda. Although the Sendai Framework is a non-binding agreement, it marks a milestone in recognizing the primary responsibility of states to reduce disaster risks and establishing targets.
The Canadian Federal government’s approach to this issue acknowledges the link between ecological footprint, climate change and natural disasters. The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change establishes an integral national strategy considering the unique geographic and climatic regional conditions, as well as to the socio-economic needs of Canadians. Government priorities include climate change adaptation, pricing carbon pollution and resilience-building mainly through investing in infrastructure and technology.
The Emergency Management Act highlights the roles of all relevant parties when facing crisis and appoints systemic obligations outlined in disaster management policies. Accordingly, Public Safety Canada operates in four interrelated areas to deal with potential disasters. One of them is the National Strategy for Disaster Mitigation, focused on reducing costs for disaster response and recovery. It also strengths national and local responders by providing resources and training. Furthermore, since 2009, Canada has a Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) established to be “multi-stakeholder national mechanism that coordinates and advises on areas of priority requiring concerted action” that to-date has over 700 members. When an emergency does occur, the Government Operations Center (GOC) oversees the federal response and provides assistance to the provinces when needed.
Regardless of this well structured and complex national strategy, it is important to note that emergencies are always addressed first at the local level and Toronto has seen its fair share of disasters. Flooding in July 2013 led to over $1 billion in insurance claims and $70 million in costs to the city. This was considered by some as the most expensive insured natural disaster in Ontario’s history and the second-most expensive weather event that year. Faced with these situations, City Hall has implemented several actions to build a disaster prepared community.
Some of the initiatives are the Toronto Green Standard, the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, the Hot Weather Response Plan, and the Strategic Forest Management Plan. Regarding the specific hazard of flooding, the city budgeted approximately 25% of the 10-year Capital Plan expenditures on stormwater management and resiliency, this includes an added $138.179 million for Wet Weather Flow projects. Additionally, the 2018-2027 Recommended Capital Budget and Plan allocates $1.542 billion in the Basement Flooding Protection Program. In 2018, the city of Toronto spent $1050.57 million for covering emergency services, which represents about 36% of its budget.
Toronto’s main tool for adaptation and preparedness is the Toronto Emergency Plan. This plan from last year outlines emergency response and provides the course of action considering risk specific plans for the 10 top hazards, where flooding features number 8. Unfortunately, the images of families trying to recover their belongings from their flooded homes make it obvious that preparedness is still a work in progress. We all have a role to play in helping to improve these results. For example, the city’s ResilientTO program opens the chance for any citizen to get involved and share their knowledge and personal experience.
Disasters can rarely be predicted but we can certainly plan for when they come. While governments are accountable for taking actions to ensure mitigation and response, it is on every citizen to educate themselves, get informed and follow the steps. Resilient communities require informed citizens. Together, we can prevent hazards from becoming disasters.
On this International Day for Disaster Reduction, take a moment to meet with your family or flatmates and check some boxes, like establishing a simple safety protocol and assess the exposure of your home to one of the various hazards identified in Toronto. Ensure that everyone knows the basic information for what to do in case of an emergency. Also, consider engaging in open government initiatives to voice your experiences and concerns. These simple conversations can save lives and make the difference between a resilient and a vulnerable community.