The European Commission is preparing to launch a “risk data hub” in the coming months that will help map out loss and damage from natural disasters such as floods, droughts, storms and other extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent with climate change.
“It is in the making. It will be rolled out towards the end of the year,” said Nacira Boulehouat, a senior official heading the disaster risk reduction unit at the European Commission’s directorate for civil protection and humanitarian aid operations (DG ECHO).
“We started with loss and damage data. And then we realised that we had to go broader than that and provide a tool across the EU which becomes a disaster risk management tool,” she told a EURACTIV event held last month.
The EU database will gather information about the risks and impacts of natural hazards of all sorts – including floods, droughts, wildfires or earthquakes. It will also include historical data to allow a more accurate mapping of risks, Boulehouat told the event, supported by Swiss insurance company Zurich.
Until now, ECHO has been dealing mostly with natural disasters outside Europe but the official said the database would cover the EU as well. “We want to bring the work around disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation together,” the official said.
The European Union is currently in the process of upgrading its civil defence mechanism, which was tested to its limits by deadly forest fires, storms and floods in 2017. The draft EU law would set up a ‘RescEU’ reserve of fire-fighting planes, high-capacity pumps, field hospitals and emergency medical teams, for use in all kinds of emergencies.
Deadly storms in Italy and recent flash floods in Southern France came as a stark reminder that extreme weather events are happening with growing frequency across Europe.
And while a causal link with climate change cannot be established with full certainty, the underlying trend is consistent with the predictions of climate scientists.
“An individual event or a statistical year of the loss trend is hard to attribute to climate change in itself. But if we look at the long-term trends, then we clearly see the gap between the total economic loss and the insured loss getting bigger,” said Michael Szönyi, who leads Zurich’s flood resilience program.
“That is what we call the natural hazard protection gap,” he said.
The bad news is that insuring against natural hazards “will become economically almost impossible” with rising exposure and vulnerability to climate risks, Szönyi said. The silver lining is that this also “logically calls for the insurance sector to bring down the total economic losses as well” by supporting disaster resilience programmes.
Looking for a business case
Zurich has calculated that every euro spent on building resilience against climate risks saves 5 euros in post-event expenses, clean-up and reconstruction. However, only 13% of spending goes into resilience and risk reduction, whereas 87% is spent on post-disaster relief.
The tough part for insurance companies is to make a business case for rewarding those investments when the benefits are not immediately tangible.
“Where are the incentives?” Szönyi asked. “Very often, we cannot prove the avoided loss. The loss hasn’t happened so how do you see it?” he wondered, saying investment in disaster prevention and preparedness must be shared across society and not just by governments or insurance companies.
“We need to find a common ground where everybody benefits from prevention,” he said.
The difference could be massive. Zurich estimates that the costs of extreme weather events amounted to $306 billion in 2017, well above the 10-year average of $190bn.
Boulehouat agreed on the need to encourage resilience and prevention programmes against climate-related disasters. But she also called on insurance companies to contribute loss and damage information to the EU database.
“It is not an easy project because the data doesn’t lie with the Commission,” she explained, saying the information currently contributed by national and regional authorities could be complemented with private sector data.
“I’m all for it,” Szönyi replied, saying there is “broad agreement” among the insurance sector in Europe that “more risk-based data should become available and should be transparent, public and free to access.”
“I think we should actually have a risk inventory, not just a loss inventory” that anyone can use for risk assessment, Szönyi continued, saying insurance firms no longer make money from their ability to access information but from their ability to make sense of it.
“Hiding and keeping information – that doesn’t help anybody,” Szönyi said.
Satellite imagery to the rescue
Disaster preparedness and relief operations are also informed by state-of-the-art satellite imagery provided by the EU’s Copernicus programme, said Françoise Villette, an official in charge of the Copernicus Emergency Management Service at the European Commission.
“It’s not only about responding in a chaos,” Villette said, explaining that all EU countries have access to Copernicus data free of charge for risk evaluation. They can also ask a mapping of disaster-stricken areas for rescue teams on the ground – whether in Europe or abroad.
“We cover the whole world and provide maps which are very easy to read,” Villette said, explaining that the satellites collect “an enormous amount of data” that can also help disaster-prone areas improve their preparedness to natural disasters.
“We’re really talking about big data here,” she said.