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Difficult questions

The short-term questions arising from what is shaping up to be another billion-dollar-plus flood for the province are clear, although they may not be easily answered.

How do you care for livestock that has no pasture and for which there is vastly reduced prospects for winter feed? Or how to get people back into their damaged homes and provide the necessary fixes to infrastructure that allows them reasonable access to supplies and services?

  • More from the Manitoba Co-operator: Hay shortages loom for cattle sector

Assessors will determine farmers’ eligibility for crop insurance and how much municipalities qualify for under disaster relief assistance.

Thankfully, such programs exist, but the fact that this process is becoming all too familiar for affected folks, mostly in rural areas, makes one wonder — for how long? Dealing with the devastation caused by a deluge of up to six inches of rain over a few days is one thing, but how do people on the receiving end of drainage cope with water rushing into the ditches, rivers and streams at the same time?

Then there are the long-term questions. How long can government, which is another word for taxpayers, continue paying compensation under programs that were designed to cover smaller, less frequent disasters? And considering the reality that these compensation programs don’t cover all of a farmer’s losses, how long can they continue to absorb the difference, much less make a living?

How many times can a road, bridge or culvert be replaced before municipalities have to tell the ever-fewer families they serve that these services are no longer sustainable?

  • KAP calls for special assistance

The Manitoba government set an interesting precedent in 2012 when it offered to buy out Interlake landowners whose properties became unusable due to rising Shoal Lakes’ waters. At what point does it become more affordable for the Crown to buy the land back — essentially reversing the Homestead Act after little more than a century?

What makes this scenario ironic is that the farming systems in these areas are predicated on a cultural mindset of drought. As evidenced by California’s plight, drought raises similar questions.

The climate has changed over the past 20 years. It has become more volatile, and more prone to extremes. No one knows for sure whether it is a short-term blip but we do know that it has affected an entire generation of farmers and many scientists believe it is a sign of more to come.

Is it time to adapt to a new reality, and if so, how?

“The Calgary and Toronto floods of 2013, and now those of Brandon in 2014, are effectively canaries in the coal mine,” Blair Feltmate, chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, wrote in the Globe and Mail last week.

Feltmate said Canada’s greenhouse gas mitigation efforts have been somewhat successful, but only at reducing the rate at which emissions are rising.

“Recognizing that the climate change ship has left the harbour, Canada needs to embrace adaption now, aggressively, or the damage currently at play with the Manitoba floods will be the low end of the new normal for cities,” he says.

Feltmate offered up some rather gloomy statistics to support his argument.

For nine out of the past 11 years in Canada, claims have exceeded premiums in the property-and-casualty insurance sector, driven largely by basement flooding.

“In the past five years in Canada, insurable catastrophic loss claims have exceeded $1 billion for the first time, and the upward curve continues with 2014 offering no let-up.”

Feltmate cites four courses of action developed by the insurance sector, starting with the development of up-to-date flood plain maps. Based on the current situation, that could well include many parts of agro-Manitoba.

Secondly, retain natural infrastructure, such as wetlands, and weather harden built infrastructure, such as building diversion channels, to direct water to non-harmful locations within and around cities. While Manitoba politicians haven’t done enough to preserve wetlands, they did show foresight when they conceived projects such as the Red River Floodway and ring dikes surrounding communities in the path of the Red River.

Thirdly, develop guidance for homeowners for safeguarding their homes, and fourthly, modify building codes to ensure residential and commercial housing is better designed for extreme weather.

“Australia found that for every $1 allocated to adaptation, $10 of avoided losses (or more) resulted. This is a pretty good return on investment, and it would apply equally to Canada,” Feltmate said.

It was short-sighted thinking that got us into this mess. It’s time for a long-term strategy that does more than maintain the status quo.

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