Actuaries call for wider debate on solutions for coping with future floods

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The devastating damage to property caused by the Queensland floods, has prompted the Institute of Actuaries of Australia to call for a national solution to manage future floods and natural disasters, which may include public (government) and private (insurance industry) options or a combination of both.

The Institute, whose member actuaries work for insurers rating risks and setting premiums, notes that the lack of adequate insurance coverage for floods and/or its prohibitive cost, are key issues which must be addressed in any national funding solution.

“One positive outcome of the Queensland events is that flood has finally become a serious subject of debate after many years of being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ or ‘too hard,” according to Peter McCarthy, chairman of the Institute’s General Insurance Practice Committee.

“While flooding and severe rain events have always been common in Australia, compared to say, cyclones or earthquakes, getting insurance can be very difficult or prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, a distinction is often drawn by insurers between flood types, such as riverine versus storm, which can elude consumers,” Mr McCarthy said.

“The issues with flood are that, unlike other disasters, the same properties flood again and again, many high risk areas are known by residents, business owners, governments and insurers, and the scale of damage is greater than for other disasters,” Mr McCarthy said. Flood premiums insurers must charge to provide full flood cover are also extremely expensive. As a simple illustration, a $500,000 property which floods every 30 years may require a premium for flood of up to tens of thousands of dollars.”

The Institute believes that any national solution for flood must begin with an agreed policy goal and an understanding that the issues are broader than insurance. “For example, is the objective to fully compensate everyone affected for their losses or to partially compensate a proportion of those affected?” Mr McCarthy said.

“There’s also a need to decide what property will be covered and to what limits. Will there be compulsory cover? Will private residence and commercial properties be covered? Will government infrastructure be covered?

Defining what ‘flood’ events are covered is also key, Mr McCarthy said.

“There are complexities regarding interaction of flood with other natural hazard covers. For example, flood damage which occurs when rain is still falling creates an overlap between ‘storm’ and ‘flood’ covers. Or, in the case of Cyclone Yasi, damage caused by wind is likely covered but damage from a river flooding caused by rain from a cyclone may not be covered and storm surge is normally not covered.”

A realistic assessment must also be made about whether it’s affordable to implement the solution long-term. The collection mechanism (tax, levy, or premium), level of compulsion to contribute and amount required to reinstate damaged assets, may also limit options.

“To manage affordability, options must address the level of cross-subsidies from owners of properties that are not in flood prone areas to owners of properties which are,” Mr McCarthy said.

And, to estimate costs and address issues associated with a funding solution, modelling of flood impacts is required, but the limitations of this must also be recognised, he said.

“Floods referred to as a ‘1-in-100 year’ or similar event may be more like 1-in-25 levels.  And, changes in land use (eg increased urbanisation leading to concrete covering land that was formerly grassland or forest) changes future flood impacts.”

It’s also important that a solution does not discourage research into flood prevention and mitigation, Mr McCarthy said. Changes may reduce the likelihood of flood damage, through changes to building codes or zoning, or reduce incidence or severity of damage through levees, dams or other structures.

Governance and oversight is also important and includes relevant legislation, public reporting and dispute resolution. This includes whose responsibility it will be to ensure property at risk is covered – whether this is individuals, government or both. Any funding solution should also address what relief should be provided to those with no insurance or those who are underinsured,” Mr McCarthy said.

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