Don Pearson is the General Manager of Conservation Ontario
The past few days have been filled with video and media accounts of the impending flood disaster unfolding in Manitoba, diverting our attention from a similar situation in the valley of the Richelieu River in Quebec. And if that isn’t enough, we have the growing drama in the lower Mississippi Valley with the prospect of significant flooding once again in New Orleans. All of these stories have a common thread – Mother Nature imposing her will on a population which although stoic, is virtually helpless to prepare for and cope with the crisis.
It is gut-wrenching to watch people hold back tears as they contemplate the impending loss to their houses, barns, family treasures and possibly their livelihood. Fortunately loss of life should be minimized because at least officials are able to provide some forecast of the timing and extent of the areas affected – but even that is not an exact science.
We have witnessed similar events in Ontario (Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Cambridge in 1974 and more recently floods in Stratford, Peterborough and North Toronto), and will –no doubt – experience again, but we have learned some lessons from our history. Through a combination of strategically placed structures (dams, dykes, channels) and a flood and erosion hazard management program which defines and generally prohibits development in flood prone areas, we have minimized the risk to our residents, ensuring that the major investment most people will make in their lives, their homes, do not become part of a disaster area.
The provincial government, coupled with 36 local watershed-based Conservation Authorities and municipalities, has enacted legislation, regulation and policies which, while occasionally being challenged by those who generally oppose government interference in their property rights, have proven to be a sound public policy for more than a half century. In addition to protecting individuals and communities against such a disaster, it prevents huge societal costs for disaster relief, cleanup and economic disruption – estimated conservatively in Ontario at more than $100 million annually, not counting social costs.
We should bear this in mind as we watch these tragedies unfold over the next days and weeks and be reminded that governments not only have the right but a duty to protect the population from disaster. This is not to suggest that other jurisdictions are not doing the best they can, but we need to pay attention in Ontario to make sure that decades of progress in regard to avoided consequences should not be taken for granted.
For more information on flooding in Ontario visit Conservation Ontario’s website http://www.conservationontario.ca/projects/floods_management.htmlProtecting People & Property: A Business Case for Investing in Flood Prevention & Control (Conservation Ontario 2009)