Calgary's Mayor Naheed Nenshi took part in a panel discussion on building resilience to natural disasters at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday.
Along with guests such as Laurent Salvador Lamothe — the Prime Minister of Haiti — and Baroness Valerie Amos, emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations, Nenshi spoke about the devastation caused by extreme weather events and how natural disasters can be better anticipated and managed.
"I think it's important for us to remember that natural disaster is not just cataclysmic things that face the developing world and humanitarian crisis," Nenshi said. "Natural disaster can face all of us ... certainly we aren't immune, but we were ready in our response."
Citing the increasing difficulty of predicting disastrous natural events, panel moderator Judith Rodin said it's important to remember that cities and people can have control over the amount of damage sustained in disasters, particularly how quickly essential resources and infrastructure are able to rebound from catastrophe through resilience planning.
Two of the reasons behind the increased potential for damage in cities where natural disasters occur are growing urban populations in cities and the growing number of people reliant on — and therefore vulnerable to — weather conditions and their impact on agricultural activities such as farming.
Recovery from the June floods has become the largest public works project in Canadian history, said Nenshi.
While the city's immediate response was handled well, the Mayor said the recovery process is where it becomes critical to communicate and work with partners at other levels of government and also private interests such as insurance companies.
Above all, it's the resilience planning that is most important, he said — and the most difficult to convince people on.
"Think about that for a moment, as a policy maker," he said, referring to the cost of a proposed diversion tunnel under the city and several other flood mitigation measures currently under evaluation. "I have a $23 billion infrastructure deficit on things that will be needed every day and yet I have to go to citizens and say, 'I have to spend your money, this money, on something that might never, ever be used."
Don't delay, Nenshi warns on mitigation
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Nenshi says it's easy for him to make the case for money being spent on expensive flood mitigation projects that might have been brushed aside before the flood.
But delaying action could increase the risk that provincial and federal partners — as well as municipal voters — will be inclined to downplay the future risk in order to save money in the short-term.
Calgarians 'did great things'
While governments have an important role to play in ensuring preparedness for future disasters, Nenshi said it's also important to remember another crucial factor — the capacity of people to lend a helping hand.
"As we rebuild, as opposed to the things that are pure resilience, of course we're going to rebuild in a way that is thoughtful, that mitigates against future disaster and damage," he said. "I want to make sure we don't miss one thing, which is the remarkable role of people and the remarkable capacity we have as human beings both to be resilient but also to help our neighbours.
That's something that we saw very much in our situation, that people were really able to come out and do great things."