Disaster resilience in a warming planet

In the aftermath of COP21 and Davos 2016, the dual challenges of urbanization and climate change have risen up the agenda.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual Global Risk Report identified climate-induced catastrophe as the greatest threat to the world economy in 2016. This challenge, combined with other macro trends such as urbanization and resource scarcity, was hotly discussed by policymakers in Davos in January and in the run up to last year’s Paris agreement.

2015 was the hottest year on record, with the global average surface temperature about one degree Celsius above that of the pre-industrial era, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Nevertheless, losses from natural catastrophes were the lowest of any year since 2009, with overall losses totaling $90bn, of which roughly $27bn were insured.

Munich Re credited a strong El Niño for curbing hurricane activity in the North Atlantic, but noted it also brought major floods and heatwaves to many developing and emerging countries. Climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) think such weather extremes will become more common as a result of an increase in the Earth’s average temperature.

Public private solutions

During the December 2015 meeting in Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged $30m of funding to support the expansion of regional catastrophe pools in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. He stated the new contributions would “help vulnerable populations rebuild stronger after climate-related disasters”.

Referring to these regional catastrophe pools, Torsten Jeworrek, member of Munich Re’s board of management, stated: “These are pioneering solutions, especially as they also permit insurance for the countries that suffer most from the consequences of climate change, but have thus far not been able to organize cover.”

An additional challenge for many catastrophe exposed countries is rapid urbanization. By 2025, the developing world will be home to 29 megacities – cities containing at least 10 million inhabitants. In such vast, densely populated urban centers there is likely to be a much greater impact from weather-related catastrophes, such as typhoons and floods.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) was set up to consider ways such cities can become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges they face. During the WEF’s annual meeting at Davos, 100RC announced a pre-funded infrastructure resilience partnership to help ensure vital recovery of critical infrastructure after disastrous events.

The scheme is set to be piloted in New Orleans – a city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – with a focus on some of the city’s infrastructure, including critical water and wastewater systems. The idea is that by planning ahead for major shocks and stresses, cities not only strengthen the resistance of their vital infrastructure but can also limit economic interruption in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Partners of the scheme include Swiss Re and utility firm Veolia.

“This partnership is a sign that the private sector better understands what cities need to build resilience, and cities will no longer have to make difficult and often inefficient decisions after experiencing a disaster,” said Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities. “They will know what is at risk, how it needs to improve, who will fix it, and where the funds will come from, all of which allows them to rebound more quickly.”

April 2016