Common threads: what we can learn from analyzing multiple disasters

Friday, June 16, 2023

Examining why some natural hazards develop into disasters can reveal resilience-building opportunities with the potential to protect communities from future catastrophe. Just as important as disaster analysis itself is the process of identifying key learnings that can be applied in other contexts, in the pursuit of a more resilient world.

It was ten years ago – almost to the day – that Zurich and the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, in response to major flooding in central Europe, began analyzing significant disaster events using our own Post-Event Review Capability (PERC) methodology. While hazards are natural, disasters are not, and only through extensive analysis and in discussion with key actors on site – looking at the community level in particular – can we gain insight into what led to such devastation, and what can be learned to reduce future risk.

Since then, we have applied the same process to over two dozen flood and wildfire events around the world. While each disaster is unique and takes place in a very specific context, there are also similarities that are too important not to be highlighted and discussed. That’s why, starting with a peer-reviewed publication in 2016, we have released a series of summary reports that take a closer look at some of the key issues identified by these studies. 

The latest of these summary reports benefits from learnings across all the studies we have conducted so far, but has a particular focus on the seven most recent flood events to which the PERC methodology was applied: Terai flooding in Nepal (2017), Cyclone Idai in south-east Africa (2019), Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh, two cyclones in Eastern Mexico, urban flooding in Senegal (2020), a series of massive typhoons in Vietnam (all 2020), and the flooding in western Europe that followed storm system ‘Bernd’ (2021). 

Medlin Manjesa, 12, carries debris from one of the many landslides that occurred in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai. Photo: Ezra Millstein, Mercy Corps

It’s about much more than money 

Each of the disasters we analyzed featured massive physical damage leading to large financial losses, many of which were not insured. But the consequences from the disasters go far beyond this aspect. When discussing this “protection gap” between insured and uninsured losses, the world – and the financial industry in particular – has a short memory for the related humanitarian disasters.  

Cyclones Idai and Kenneth devastated southern African countries in 2019, but were soon referred to as the “forgotten disaster”, after not even featuring on the list of top financial disasters of that year. In Germany, storm system ‘Bernd’ was the most fatal in many decades from a short-onset event (leaving aside heatwaves), killing close to 200 people in Germany. Consecutive hurricanes in Vietnam trapped people in poverty, as they were unable to recover swiftly and strongly enough.  

Generally, it is often the most vulnerable that suffer the most – we have this seen particularly with people living in low-income areas and the elderly, who not only had the most difficulty to recover but also the highest fatality rates. Speaking to those affected by the flooding, the reports’ researchers heard frightening and heart breaking stories of human tragedy. Rather than forgetting the impact of these disasters on families and communities – in a way that those who lived through them never could – it is vital to take action to also protect lives and livelihoods, and not just try to close the financial protection gap. 

Prioritizing a resilient recovery 

The report’s analysis of multiple, contextually-diverse disasters reveals a universal truth – that implementing a recovery process that leads to improved levels of resilience against similar incidents in the future (a “resilient recovery”) can be extremely challenging. After the 2021 floods in Germany, for example, opportunities to ’build back better’ were often missed, as the affected population strived to return to normality as quickly as possible.  

It won’t be easy, but it is nevertheless imperative to overcome coordination challenges and facilitate the right policies, procedures and preparatory action so a resilient recovery can be successfully practiced. The Alliance continues to monitor this issue closely, and will be releasing a substantive report on resilient recovery later this year. 

Flood damage in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, caused by storm system Bernd. Photo: Bernd Engelien, Zurich Gruppe Deutschland

The power of shared learning 

When tragedies are so similar across the globe, even in significantly different contexts, this calls for much more shared learning to improve disaster resilience globally.  

Interventions carried out by our Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance partners in our program countries could equally work in places like central Europe or the USA. At the same time, established technological, financial and infrastructural protection approaches more common in the Global North could also be applied and financed in the Global South. This includes implementing simple, low-tech solutions such as gauges and early warning systems, to changing ‘disaster behaviour’ to ensure that responsibility for disaster risk management is ingrained into the culture at every level, from policymakers to individual community members. 

It is clear that extreme climate-related events will continue to happen – and while everything possible must be done to adapt and reduce risk in advance, losses from disasters will still take place. It is therefore vitally important to continue to learn from one another, and from past events, in order to protect the lives and livelihoods of those at the frontline of the climate crisis. 

For more details, read Zurich’s latest summary report or find out more about the PERC process.

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