Extreme weather kicks up a storm for insurance industry

Posted: 16 December 2004

Author: Maya Pastakia

Weather-related disasters in the year 2004, including hurricanes, typhoons and other storms, have made it the most expensive year ever for the worldwide insurance industry, running up a bill of more than $35 billion in losses.

Figures released the international climate change conference taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina (6 - 17 December), show that for the first 10 months of this year natural disasters cost the insurance industry just over $35 billion, up from $16 billion in 2003.

Key weather disasters in 2004

HURRICANE CATARINA hit southern Brazil in March causing an estimated US$350 million in economic losses. This was the first time since world-wide observations began that a hurricane developed in the Southern Atlantic where sea surface temperatures are usually too low for tropical cyclones.

HURRICANE JEANNE released torrential rain on Hispaniola, causing severe flooding and killing more than 2,000 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

TEN TYPHOONS, a record number, made landfall in Japan, the most destructive of which were Chaba, Songda and Tokage, one of the strongest typhoons ever. Altogether they caused economic losses of US $10 billion and insured losses of more than US$6 billion.

HURRICANE IVAN was one of the most destructive and strongest storms ever, maintaining a strength of category force four to five on the Saffir Simpson for more than five days. Apart from the Caribbean islands, the storm also caused serious damage to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Economic losses are estimated as up to $3 billion. The estimated damage of US$1 billion to Grenada was twice the island's gross domestic product.

The United States, at over $26 billion suffered the highest insured losses according to the preliminary figures compiled by Munich Re, one of the world's biggest re-insurance companies.

Global insured losses are likely to be even higher when the months of November and December are brought into the equation.

Economic losses, the majority of which were not insured, will also have cost the planet and its people dear. Preliminary figures for the months January to October estimate that these losses were also among the highest on record totaling, so far, about $90 billion up from over $65 billion in 2003.

Hardest hit have been many small, developing countries with the islands of Grenada and Grand Cayman in the Caribbean underlining the impact on fragile economies.

Hurricane Ivan which struck Grenada in September, killing 28 people, is estimated to have cost the country US$1 billion, twice the island's gross domestic product. Close to 30,000 houses or nearly 90 per cent were damaged of which 10,000 or a nearly a third were beyond repair. Schools and centres of learning were hit amounting to $90 million in damages with over 30,000 students affected.

Hurricane Ivan kicks up a storm in Grenda leaving thousands of people homeless. Photo: Hurrican Ivan Relief site
Hurricane Ivan kicks up a storm in Grenda leaving thousands of people homeless. Photo: Hurrican Ivan Relief site
Homes damaged by Hurricane Ivan have left thousands of people homeless in Grenada.© Hurrican Ivan Relief site
Damage to hospitals and public health care centres is estimated at over $4 million. It may take several years for the key crops of nutmeg and cocoa to recover leaving over 38,000 workers facing unemployment until the production is restored.

New climate risks

The insurance industry is worried that new, climate-related risks, may be emerging. Hurricane Catarina, which hit Brazil earlier this year, developed in the Southern Atlantic where normally sea surface temperatures are too low to trigger tropical cyclones. This hurricane ran up a bill of US$350 million in economic losses for the country.

Dr Kenrick Leslie, Director of the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre hosted by the Government of Belize and supported by UNEP, said Ivan was as a "unique event never before seen in the Caribbean".

"Grenada normally escapes such events. But here was a hurricane that formed south and east of the Antilles. It is believed to be the first in recorded history of a hurricane forming so far south and east of the Antilles," he said.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said: "Climate change is already happening with rapid melting of the Arctic and glaciers world wide. Climate scientists anticipate an increase and intensity of extreme weather events and this is what the insurance industry is experiencing resulting in year on year losses."

"In many developing countries the impacts of high winds and torrential rains are aggravated by a variety of factors ranging from the clearing for forests making hilly slopes more vulnerable to land slips and slides to a lack of enforcement of building codes. Reducing vulnerability and helping poorer nations cope with the ravages of climate change is vital. Some experts estimate that for every one dollar invested in disaster preparedness, you will save six dollars in reconstruction costs," he said.

"However, it cannot be an alibi for inaction on emission cut backs. In the end, many smaller countries like low-lying small island developing states and countries like Bangladesh, can only adapt for so long before they are eventually over come by the impacts of storm surges and rising sea levels," said Mr Toepfer.

Counting the cost

The findings on the preliminary costs of weather-related natural disasters have come from Munich Re, one of the world's biggest re-insurance companies and a member of the UNEP Finance Initiative.

Thomas Loster, a senior executive and climate expert with Munich Re which is part of UNEP's Finance Initiatives, said: "As in 2002 and 2003, the overall balance of natural catastrophes is again clearly dominated by weather-related disasters many of them exceptional and extreme. Indeed 98 per cent of all losses for 2004 and about 100 per cent of insured losses were weather-driven. We need to stop this dangerous experiment human-kind is conducting on the Earth's atmosphere ".

"According to our latest findings, economic losses from January to October are in the order of $90 billion. The average value of the last ten years has been $70 billion. Insured losses, driven by weather or climate-related disasters, will amount to more than $30 billion, making 2004 the costliest natural catastrophe year ever for the insurance industry world-wide. There are indications that the figures will further increase," he said.

"I would urge delegates and governments here in Buenos Aires to make a strong commitment to a post Kyoto agenda otherwise the industry's appetite to finance and insure projects under the instruments of the Kyoto Protocol, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, will be blunted," said Mr Loster.

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