Canada wasn't prepared for natural disasters in 2021 — and next year threatens a repeat


Ottawa plans to release first national climate adaptation strategy by end of 2022

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Thick smoke fills the air over a property destroyed by the White Rock Lake wildfire in Monte Lake, east of Kamloops, B.C., on Saturday, August 14, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

After a year that saw deadly heat domes, massive wildfires and historic flooding, Ottawa is being pressed to do more to help Canadians prepare for the effects of an increasingly volatile and dangerous climate.

Few Canadian cities know the price of climate change better than Kamloops, B.C., which experienced temperatures above 40C for nearly a full week this summer and — not long after — massive wildfires that put hundreds of residents under evacuation notices.

Months later, Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian reflected on his city's stressful year and the lack of preparation and infrastructure he believes aggravated the damage caused by the heat and fires.

"I think what's really missing is that whole support for local infrastructure and, in particular, some of the protective infrastructure," Christian told CBC News.

"We were not as prepared as we needed to be, and we look to both the provincial and the federal government."

According to a 2019 report often cited by the federal government, Canada's climate is warming two times faster than the global average — three times faster in the North.

The rapidly changing climate is acknowledged — in the words of one government report — to be increasing "the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme events like heat waves, wildfires, and floods." The trend is expected to continue for several decades, even if climate-warping emissions are reduced globally.

Soldiers deployed in response to November's record-setting B.C. floods fill sandbags to help protect dikes in Princeton, B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

To better cope with the effects of climate change, Ottawa plans in 2022 to finalize its National Adaptation Strategy, an overarching set of plans and procedures to improve Canada's climate resilience.

"As climate impacts continue to rise, the government recognizes that a more ambitious, strategic and collaborative approach is required to adapt and build resilience to the changing climate," said a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada in an email.

The government started work on the plan in the spring of 2021 and is scheduled to release the final report in the fall of 2022.

2021 revealed 'the best and the worst' of climate policy

Paul Kovacs, founder and executive director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at Western University, said the disasters of 2021 demonstrated the urgent need for a stronger climate plan.

"In the current year, we have seen the best and the worst of what Canadian policy does in terms of dealing with disasters," Kovacs told CBC News.

While he said Canada has become adept at responding to emergencies as they happen, more must be done to prevent disasters and help communities recover from them.

B.C. Premier John Horgan described his province's fall flooding disaster as a once-every-500-years event — but Kovacs said equally extreme floods, heat, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes should be expected in the coming years.

"These will be enormously bigger than anything we've experienced in the past when they do occur," he said.

Communities still 'too busy responding to natural disasters'

Chirstian's wish list of climate projects and infrastructure upgrades for Kamloops is a long one. It includes new emergency centres to protect residents during periods of extreme heat or poor air quality, more protective dikes and better wildfire protection.

In 2018, the federal government created a disaster mitigation and adaptation fund, now backed by $3.375 billion. Christian said federal money to pay for major projects has not yet arrived in his city.

"We're too busy responding to natural disasters to actually do planning and exercises and logistics," Christian said.

Coastal communities also need more protection. A report released this month by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaption at the University of Waterloo found that Canada lacks a national system to assess risk in coastal areas

The report called on the federal government to fund more natural infrastructure projects — such as stabilizing cliffs and restoring wetlands — to protect communities from rising sea levels.