Groundhog Day: Global Lessons from the Kerala Floods

Late last year, I shared in an editorial with India's Mint publication that India would never really know the cost of August's Kerala floods, and that the government should consider all aspects of disaster risk financing before the next natural catastrophe strikes.

We now know that reconstruction and cleanup costs are now being passed down – including a "flood cess" that taxes citizens on gold and silver purchases, among others. The military has also hit the state government with a Rs. 102 crore bill (USD 14 million) for the 517 sorties it flew during the relief period. All these additional costs will eventually be felt by Kerala's citizens – the same ones who need help and reconstruction aid the most.

Fact: our world and climate are changing. Fact: We're not adapting to these changes quick enough. Fact: public-private partnerships will make our world a more resilient place.

Insuring our Changing World

Most natural catastrophes remain underinsured. And its not that insurance companies do not have the capacity - total non-life re/insurance capacity stood at more than USD 2 trillion at the end of last year, according to Swiss Re Institute estimates. Science and data tell us that Asia will face bigger bills for "secondary perils" because of people have chosen to live in dense, heavily populated areas by the coastline. The confluence of climate change, human movement and density only means these occurrences will not be a rarity as in the past.

The scale of damage from any natural disaster can never really be measured. Because you can't measure tears and hurt. You can never really measure loss. Why we're determined to work on what we can measure and to make Asia a more resilient place to live, thrive and grow.

Asian governments are recognizing that they can be better prepared. For example, China's Mao County turned to Swiss Re and our local partner Groupama AVIC to come up with a parametric solution resulting in automatic payouts should they be hit by a natural disaster – floods, quakes, landslides or even heavy rainfall. In Mao County, in the event of a quake and the seismic rating goes past a pre-agreed threshold, an automatic payout will be triggered.

What does that mean? No claims. No wait for handouts. A quicker start to the rebuilding process.

Disaster Risk Financing

There are numerous other models for disaster risk financing: America's National Flood Insurance Program, the Caribbean's 16-country hurricane, earthquake and rainfall risk insurance fund and Mexico's FONDEN program, which is a comprehensive disaster risk financing strategy comprising reserve funding, reinsurance and catastrophe bonds.

Scientists have also said the space between El Nino-La Nina weather patterns too, are shortening. Floods in one region, drought in others. Widespread damage is forecasted for this year's El Nino. Mix in urbanized coastlines, dense cities and disease-causing pollutants and you have a recipe for disaster far more potent than in the past. A large swath of Asia also sits on the "Pacific Ring of Fire", where over 90% of all quakes take place. Of the 25 record magnitude earthquakes, only three came from beyond this ring.

Why wait? We know that the odds don't reside with us when a natural catastrophe strikes. Which is why we track storms, fixate ourselves on news channels and tape our windows in the hope that nothing happens. We can't always prevent a storm or quake, but we can be better prepared to deal with it once it has passed.

There is another compelling reason: ratings agencies are increasingly looking at the impact of natural disasters on the financial health of a government. Both S&P and Moody’s said1 that mitigating the financial impact of natural disasters will improve the credit rating of a government.

Rethinking Risk

We believe the disaster risk mechanism for most countries can be relooked. Back to Kerala, under India’s disaster relief mechanism, the focus on immediate relief and rehabilitation leaves unaddressed the challenge of how to fund restoration and rebuilding of infrastructure. Again, insurance purchased on the government account will serve to plug this gap in reconstruction financing.

Globally, in 2017 and 2018, the combined economic loss total from natural disaster events was USD 497 billion, and the insured loss total at USD 219 billion, representing the highest level of associated insurance pay outs over a two-period ever. The combined natural catastrophe protection gap for the two years was also large, at USD 280 billion.

That USD280 billion can be put to better use.

Today, there are innovative solutions and predictive models that we use to help our partners better prepare ahead of a natural catastrophe. Technology and satellite mapping also help us with payouts and helps Swiss Re consider new risk and emerging risk pools across Asia.

What governments should be doing is to consider new approaches that build on the shared knowledge of insurers and their reinsurance partners. As mentioned, public-private partnerships that combine risk prevention and risk transfer solutions are there and can be readily applied.

The benefit to governments would be transparency over funding; the benefit to citizens is almost immediate payouts; the benefit to everyone affected would be food, clothes, medicines and temporary shelter without having to appeal for funds.

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