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Floods, drought, storms could cost Canadian retail, agriculture sectors billions by 2050: report

Retail and fast-moving consumer goods are expected to be the second-most affected economic sector after manufacturing and distribution
Flooding in Abbotsford november 2021
Flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., November 2021. Photo: Shutterstock

Floods, droughts and major storms that wash out highways, damage buildings and affect power grids could cost Canada's economy $139 billion over the next 30 years, a new climate-based analysis predicts.

The report, titled “Aquanomics,'' is being published today by GHD, a global engineering and architecture services firm.

GHD's Canadian water lead Don Holland said there are lots of reports that count up insured losses and physical damage after major events like last fall's atmospheric river in British Columbia.

“What this report does is actually takes into account the loss of economic productivity, the shocks to the system when it comes to supply chain prices, and all of that,'' Holland said in an interview.

He pointed to the 2021 B.C. floods, which for a time cut off rail and highway links between the country's biggest port in Vancouver and the rest of Canada. The disruption stressed supply chains already hampered by COVID-19, raising prices, slowing production in factories that couldn't get parts, and leaving some shelves empty in grocery stores and other retailers.

“It had huge knock-on effects,'' said Holland.

The report predicts manufacturing and distribution will take the biggest hit from water-related climate disasters between now and 2050—an estimated $64 billion in losses, or about 0.2% of the total manufacturing economy a year.

While droughts can restrict industrial production, floods and storms cause direct damage to buildings and machinery, or take out power supplies, forcing factories into silence.

The derecho wind storm that ripped across southern and eastern Ontario in May damaged the power grid in Ottawa so badly, parts of the city were without electricity for more than two weeks.

Drought is often seen as only a real risk to agriculture, but extreme drought can be much wider-reaching. In Europe, near-record lows on the Rhine River might halt marine traffic along Europe's most important shipping lane that links major ports in Belgium and the Netherlands to Germany and Switzerland.

Last week in China, a massive heat wave prompted the government to force some factories to close to ration power as low river levels cut power output at hydroelectric dams.

Governments in California, Nevada, Utah and other parts of the western United States are enforcing water rationing in the midst of what some call the worst drought in more than a millennium.

Lake Mead, the biggest reservoir in the United States, is down to one-quarter of its capacity, with macabre results: at least five bodies have been located as the water receded, some of them believed to have drowned or been killed and left in the lake decades ago.

Retail and fast-moving consumer goods—heavily reliant on water-related infrastructure, and extremely exposed in the event of damage to supply routes—will be the second-most affected economic sector, with losses estimated to be around $26 billion between 2022 and 2050.

Energy and utilities will face an estimated $14 billion in losses, either through direct damage to power grids and production plants, or reductions in power output at hydro dams and nuclear plants because of low water levels.

Agriculture in Canada is estimated to lose about $4 billion over the next 28 years, also threatening food security.

GHD says costly and massive infrastructure projects to protect against storms and floods are no longer the answer to make the economy more resilient, because time is of the essence.

Smaller projects that can be done quickly, often utilizing nature itself, are likely the best choice, the report says.

The average temperature on Earth is already more than 1 C above pre-industrial times and the climate has already changed, leading to more frequent and more severe storms and floods and wider and longer droughts.

The cost of those events is high.

The Emergency Event Database compiled by the Belgium-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters said economic losses in 2021 from drought, floods and storms worldwide totalled US$224 billion, compared with an average of US$118 billion between 2001 and 2020.

Holland said for him, the report's biggest message is “the magnitude of what we're facing if we don't get more resilient, if we don't make our communities more resilient.''

“It's really driving home, how water ... touches every aspect of our lives and communities. It truly does, in ways that we don't know about.''

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