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Canadian infrastructure liable to increased number of natural disasters: experts

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TORONTO - Canada's infrastructure has become more vulnerable to natural disasters such as the flooding in southern Alberta due to the rising cost of upkeep and increasing frequency of dangerous weather due to climate change, say experts attending a major conference on disaster management.

"How prepared are we? One way of answering that is that we will never be as prepared as we could be," said Adrian Gordon, former President & CEO of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness.

"We're simply that much closer to the next big disaster. What it's going to be, who knows? Right now it's Calgary, tomorrow it could be something else," said Gordon who is one of the officials attending the World Conference on Disaster Management.

Dr. Saeed Mirza, emeritus professor at Montreal's McGill University specializing in structural engineering, added that the monumental infrastucture costs accumulated over decades of negligence have left Canada particularly vulnerable to catastrophic events.

"The frequency and intensity of these events has been increasing at an escalating rate and what was a one in 100 year event at one time may become the norm," he said.

"When we look at Calgary, we had a flood there in 2005 and they called it a one in 100 year flood, while this one according to some descriptions in the news has been three times as bad."

Climate change has had a "significant effect" on both the intensity and frequency of these events, but denial of its existence and a lack of preparedness on the part of municipal governments have exposed the holes in our infrastructure system, Mirza added.

"Just to see people suffering in Calgary, [officials] must have said 'look, we will never face anything like this,' and unfortunately they are suffering right now because of that."

Paul Kovacs, moderator for the conference and a member of the Canadian Council for Social Development and the Meteorological Service of Canada, said that the international event will explore the preparedness of Canada in the face of natural disasters with speakers from dozens of countries taking part.

"Our infrastructure seems to be having a hard time even on a good day, and when you have a conference on emergency management we're exploring what's going to happen on a really bad day," he said.

"Calgary right now is having a bad day, and ... when these really big events push our infrastructure even harder how well does it hold up? The answer is not terribly well."

Kovacs added that although it's not known exactly when natural disasters are going to occur, we're going to have a higher number of these catastrophic events in the future

"Are we taking that into account when we're thinking about how we build and how we look after our systems? Unfortunately the answer too often is no," he said.

Mirza estimated that Canada's infrastructure requirements have reached a cost of about $1 trillion, while a recent survey by the McKinsey Global Institute earlier this year stated that worldwide infrastructure needs are about $57 trillion.

"In terms of funding, the amounts of money are truly frightening and there's no government in the world that can find the kind of money necessary to bring existing infrastructure up to par," Gordon said.

The lack of political will is one of the biggest obstacles to infrastructure funding, which is why Mirza proposed that Canada adopt a best practices solution to addressing our climbing infrastructure costs.

"What we need, and I've pleaded for it several times, is a national infrastructure policy in Canada because our governments have a tenure of four years, whereas infrastructure exists for 7,500 years," said Mirza.

In addition to national guidelines, Mirza also proposed a system where the private sector would contribute to infrastructure costs and cited estimates that 15 per cent of the operating expenses of many multinationals and major corporations are related to infrastructure.

"We have failed to make the general public realize that what we might have expected in terms of help during crisis even a few years ago, may not be the case now," says Gordon.

"So there is a far greater case for individuals and families to be prepared ... but the general perception amongst the public is 'it's not going to happen to me anyway'."

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