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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

As natural disasters increase, insurance industry feels strain

Cover no longer a certainty as insurance companies battle to deal with rising catastrophe-related claims

A destroyed house after a raging bush fire swept through the seaside town of Knysna, South Africa in June. Insurers are feeling the strain as claims mount amid more natural disasters. EPA/STR
A destroyed house after a raging bush fire swept through the seaside town of Knysna, South Africa in June. Insurers are feeling the strain as claims mount amid more natural disasters. EPA/STR

For the Liepner family June 7 this year was a date they would never forget – it was the day they fled their farm on South Africa's south coast, outside the town of Knysna.

They were among the first to be hit by a runaway wildfire that destroyed vast tracks of land and burned down nearly 1,000 homes.

"We could see flames in the distance – about a kilometre way. Then, it was on us," says Nick Liepner. He and his wife Cheryl battled the flames for 10 hours before being overwhelmed. "We just packed our truck with a few things and drove away. The next day there was nothing left."

The farm and its various buildings had been their home for 32 years and its loss was devastating. More so because they were not insured.

"We never really had much need for insurance. The place wasn't much to look at and if something broke, I repaired it myself. But never would I have thought something like this would happen," says Mr Liepner.

The Liepners are now living with friends and a local Islamic charity, Gift Of The Givers, is building them a replacement house - so their story has a happy ending of sorts.

South African couple Nick and Cheryl Liepner for fire story for business. (Photo courtesy-Gavin du Venage)
Nick and Cheryl Liepner. Courtesy-Gavin du Venage

The June wildfires were the result of unusual weather patterns that kept seasonal rains away, turning vegetation tinder dry. Then, winds of up to 100kph struck. By the time the flames were put out several weeks later, seven people were dead and thousands were homeless.

The Great Knysna Fires, as the event has become known, was not an isolated event. Increasingly, natural disasters are affecting lives across the globe. The evidence is mounting that these events are linked to climate change. Over the past few years hurricanes have battered the US, floods have drenched South America and the UK. Also in June this year, more than 60 people died in wildfires that sprang up across Portugal.

Even the Middle East is not immune; a study last year by the US space agency Nasa found that the region was experiencing the worst drought in 900 years. Among other consequences, Nasa believes, was the outbreak of civil strife in Syria and beyond as communities competed over dwindling resources.

For individuals seeking financial protection from such events, insurance is usually the way to go. However, even this is no longer a certainty as insurance companies battle to deal with rising disaster-related claims.

Insurers say the increase in such claims has outstripped premium growth, resulting in what the industry calls a “protection gap”. This gap is the difference between the potential cost of disaster related claims, and the industry's reserves to pay out.

Due to this, a coalition of the world's largest insurers has come together and formed ClimateWise, a focus group based at Cambridge University in the UK. Among ClimateWise's members are industry big names such as Allianz, Aviva, Lloyd’s, Prudential, Swiss Re and Zurich.

According to the UK group, the global protection gap is now US$100 billion, four times what it was in the 1980s. Left unchecked, this sum will grow. According to ClimateWise research the frequency of weather-related catastrophes such as windstorms and floods has increased six-fold since the 1950s.

"The protection gap is a consequence of society failing to manage its physical exposure to climate-risk below actuarially sustainable levels," says Tom Herbstein, the senior programme manager at ClimateWise. "This is why the cost of insurance continues to rise."

For expats based in the UAE this is a concern, as many use their time abroad to acquire assets back home, such as houses and cars. Many intend on returning home to retire, and the loss of property can be devastating to these plans.

Already early calculations from Hurricane Harvey, for instance, show that about 70 per cent of those affected were uninsured, according to CNN. Total uncovered loss will reach around $30bn from that one event alone. The numbers from subsequent events such as Hurricane Irma are likely to be even higher.

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Insurers appear to be reacting in two ways – opting out altogether in providing cover for high risk areas or raising premiums to levels that make insurance unaffordable to all but the wealthiest.

Complicating the decisions expats must make is the fact that different countries have very different rules and support over how coverage is applied.

The US government for instance provides the National Flood Insurance Program that covers around 5 million homes. However only those within the 100-year flood plain are protected, and since much of Harvey's rampage was outside this zone, most of those affected will still not be compensated.

In the UK, flood cover is usually standard as part of general household insurance even if the homeowner lives in a region where risk is low. This spreads the risk and lowers the overall premium. According to the Association of British Insurers, storms that hammered the UK in 2015 cost around £1.3bn (Dh6.29bn) in claims. Much of this was spent in repairing houses and providing temporary accommodation to 3,000 families who were displaced.

These events show no sign of slowing. This month, the UK Met Office for the south-west of England warned Cornwall residents to brace for floods.

Europe, too, is feeling the pain. Floods in central Europe last month may cost insurance companies $3.5bn to $4.5bn, Reuters reports.

In response, some insurers are changing the wording of policies - something that unaware consumers only discover when they try make a claim. In the US, for instance, policies are being written that differentiate between structural damage and flood damage. In these cases insurers will pay out only for damage to the house itself, but not for carpets, furniture, electronic goods or anything else ruined by water.

Regardless of the policy, it pays to be as prepared as possible. Insurers are advising people in flood-risk areas to document everything, down to the model and make of TVs, computers and other valuables. These should be photographed and uploaded on to a cloud network to protect the images from disaster loss. Having a record of items will make the claims processing process a whole lot quicker.

However, many consumers are going to have to become creative in protecting their assets, says Mr Herbstein. "Consumers play a crucial role in reducing their protection gap. They should be encouraged to increase their awareness of their specific risk exposure and invest directly in protecting vulnerable assets."

This can take the form of self-insurance - a (literal) rainy day fund set aside for emergency repairs following a disaster. This, of course, would be a challenge for most consumers but may well become a necessary part of living in an at-risk area.

Even if a consumer has insurance, such a fund will prove its value when catastrophe strikes. Evacuation can have devastating financial implications for those affected. Possible loss of income if they are self-employed; the cost of transport; accommodation, the price of which could soar in areas on the periphery of a disaster; and finally, loss of assets even if a property survives. Looting is a common hazard after fires and floods, as opportunists take the chance to rifle through abandoned properties.

In the meantime, consumers should also be speaking to each other, and to politicians, about ways to reduce climate change events, says Mr Herbstein.

"They must also become more proactive in demanding better responses, by policymakers, to invest in the types of infrastructure that will promote resilience more widely."