Along Canadian coastlines and waterfronts, increased erosion, storm surges and rising seas are putting more homes at risk of flooding. However, an East Coast researcher has found many people oppose flood-risk mapping because they fear their real estate will be devalued.

That was the result of two surveys led by Kate Sherren, a professor at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Her findings were recently published in the research journal Canadian Geographies. The first, conducted in 2021 in two towns in the province’s southwest, found one in six people thought the mapping would place real estate values at too great a risk. A 2022 survey, conducted in a coastal area near the Bay of Fundy, found one in three residents had the same concern.

While those numbers reflect a minority view, Sherren said: “It doesn't really matter how many … if those people have economic and political power.” And importantly, people and industries pushing back against similar measures can compel governments to abandon them.

For example, Nova Scotia recently abandoned its Coastal Protection Act, which was set to restrict where new homes and buildings could be built along the shoreline due to erosion and flood risks.

The survey results represent a widespread attitude among Canadian property owners and developers who feel threatened by flood mapping, explained Sherren. In a piece for The Conversation, she called public resistance toward flood maps the “unacknowledged reason” why Canada is so behind on the practice. In contrast, England has a national flood-risk mapping system, where anyone can go online and look up their area to see flooding risk.

In Canada, there are flood maps scattered in some places across the country, as municipalities and provinces move forward with their own mapping resources. In Nova Scotia, where four people died in a historic flooding event last summer, the province has said it will implement a flood mapping system by 2027.

Flood mapping as a public good

Along Canadian coastlines and waterfronts, increased erosion, storm surge and rising seas are putting more homes at risk of flooding. However, an East Coast researcher has found many people oppose flood-risk mapping.

Flood mapping is “an essential public good,” said Sherren, but in general, people with property in flood-prone areas approach flood mapping from an individualist perspective. The first survey found the best predictor of people opposed to flood maps was if they believed their choice to live in a flood-prone area doesn’t impact others.

It’s a misguided perspective, explains Ryan Ness of the Canadian Climate Institute, because there are broader impacts on communities when residential properties are flooded, as well as “further reaching financial impacts.”

“Because when people get affected by a flood disaster, they look for government to help with disaster assistance, and that comes from everybody's taxes as well,” he said. “So, it’s not just a question of somebody deciding to take the risk and accepting it.”

At the same time, flood mapping protects people who might rent or buy a home in flood-prone areas. Communities should have access to this information so they can plan where to build, he added.

“Somebody could, through no fault of their own, end up owning a flood-prone home that will not have flood insurance ... and if they are impacted by a flood and if the federal-provincial governments decide it doesn't meet the criteria of a disaster,” said Ness, “they could be on the hook for a destroyed home that's worth nothing.”

The issue of flood maps converges with concerns about insurance in flood-prone areas. Currently, insurance companies don’t cover up to 10 per cent of homes for flooding in Canada — a number that will increase as climate change makes severe weather events more frequent. Quebec has the highest number of properties ineligible for flood insurance, followed by Ontario and British Columbia. Without insurance, residents are unable to repair their homes if they’re damaged or get mortgages in high-risk areas.

The federal government is currently developing a national flood insurance program. Budget 2021 allocated $31.7 million over three years for the creation of a low-cost flood insurance program to be developed by Public Safety Canada, Finance Canada and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Getting people on board

There were a couple of glimmers of hope in Sherren’s study, she explained. The first survey indicated that people who had previously seen a flood map for their region were slightly less likely to oppose the maps. In the second survey, people with kids or grandchildren were less likely to oppose flood mapping.

“It's a fear of the unknown in many cases. A lot of this comes down to people really struggling to deal with change,” noted Sherren.

Ultimately, people need to be convinced that flood mapping is in their best interest, which would require a large shift in the way they view property and ownership of land. The need for that shift is becoming more urgent, explained Sherren, as flooding is Canada’s costliest hazard. As well, people across the world are increasingly moving to areas that are at high risk of flooding.

Flood mapping in Quebec

Quebec has also faced resistance to flood mapping, explained Catherine Perras of non-profit Vivre En Ville. Residents in the province are currently awaiting flood mapping, which was promised following flooding in the province in 2019 when over 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

There’s currently a flurry of concern in Quebec following news that credit union Desjardin will make it near impossible to get a mortgage in the most flood-prone areas of the province. Perras says people fear flood maps will lead to more rules and limitations, leaving them in the lurch with properties they can’t afford to protect.

Financial aid programs typically step in after major floods to help people fix their homes, if they can stay in the affected area. Perras wonders if more government support before floods — to both renters and homeowners in flood-risk areas — would help with fears around flood mapping.

“Why don't we just have a prevention program, where we have the same thing, but before a flood if we are in a flood zone?” she said. “Maybe, if we focused on solutions at the same time as releasing these maps, they would be more accepted.”

— With files from Isaac Phan Nay

Keep reading

Any average person who is aware of what has been happening with climate change around the globe and here in Canada, are far more aware that flood risks are a reality. Unless you have been living under a rock or in denial over climate change, you are more likely to be more aware of potential flood prone areas and areas with wildfire risks.

There is plenty of flood prone area information available just by doing simple searches on the Internet these days and from a number of conservation authorities around each province. Even if the mapping is dated, being near any area should raise concern. In addition, areas that previously flooded made the news and that information never dies on the Internet. Your insurance company is also fully aware of the risks, if not more, especially with more recent areas, and you are free to check before you decide on any bit of real estate.

Whether they update the flood mapping or not, you can no longer hide behind a flood map.

There are a lot of things to check with any home purchase and where the flood prone areas are one of them and what your insurance company is aware of. If you take the time to investigate property taxes, other fees, utility costs as part of your buying decision, why not where the flood prone areas are to the area.