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The Preparedness Puzzle

Between 1970 and 2019, 79 percent of disasters worldwide involved weather, water, and climate-related hazards, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“As climate change continues to threaten human lives, ecosystems and economies, risk information and early warning systems (EWS) are increasingly seen as key for reducing these impacts,” said the organization’s 2020 State of Climate Services report.

One of the rising effects of climate change is increased flooding. According to estimates from First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research organization that studies flood risk and housing, the cost of flood damage to U.S. homes will increase by more than 50 percent over the next 30 years. Today, 23.7 million properties are at risk. In Florida alone, 23 percent of all properties have major to extreme flood risk. Meanwhile, insurance premiums are on the rise to account for increased risks and more expensive disasters, reported NPR.

In a 2020 analysis, nonprofit World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct Floods tool found that the number of people worldwide affected by flooding will double by 2030. Riverine floods are expected to affect 132 million in 2030 (up from 65 million in 2010), and coastal flooding could affect 15 million (up from 7 million).  

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Flooding has caused more than $1 trillion in global losses since 1980, but increased flooding is likely to drive costs still higher. Aqueduct Floods reported that urban property damage from coastal storm surges and sea level rise will increase tenfold—from $17 billion to $177 billion each year.

The three big natural hazards that organizations should plan for are earthquakes, storms, and flooding, although given the recent effects of climate change, organizations should be as mindful of too little rainfall—including drought, wildfires, and food shortages—as too much, says Michael Szönyi, Flood Resilience Program Lead at Zurich Insurance Company.

In a preview for an upcoming environmental risk workshop at ASIS Europe on 23 March, Szönyi connected with Security Management for a brief discussion about evolving climate risks, preparedness, and resilience.

Szönyi says security professionals are likely familiar with the three overlapping signals in assessing disaster risk: hazard (in this case, climate change, population growth or migration, high acid concentration), exposure (economic value and the people in harm’s way), and vulnerability. The last element should spark conversation and evaluation, he adds.

“How are we faring if we combine the hazard and the exposure together? Are we risk aware? How are we behaving? How do we protect ourselves?,” he asks. Under this model, the hazard is only one part of the equation, so in the face of heightened hazards—such as stronger, more frequent storms—security professionals can make adjustments to their organization’s exposure and vulnerability to bolster resilience.

For flooding in particular, Szönyi recommends following a risk reduction hierarchy tailored to the hazard. Hazard mapping—understanding the past, present, and future flood risks to your region, facilities, and staff—builds a solid foundation for risk mitigation.

“The best protection is not to be exposed, to be outside of the flood hazard,” Szönyi says. However, that is not always feasible. The conundrum is: should the organization invest in modern land zoning and planning or should it buy cheap land in hazardous zones and then retroactively seek to correct risks?

“The risk management function is needed to not just be seen as a cost,” he says. “It also needs to be seen as an investment. You need to do a full cost calculation because if the land is cheap, well, there needs to be a downside to it. If I’m more exposed, I likely have more losses, or I need to pay more to reduce the risk that I have exposed myself to.”

Risk mapping needs to be forward-facing as well. Circumstances change quickly, especially as climate factors shift or building developments upriver change the flow of water or the risk of flooding. “It’s not sufficient to just rely on past historical data,” Szönyi adds.

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If avoiding a floodplain is impossible, he recommends using natural approaches where possible—not just levies or retaining walls.

“How do you make sure that you can live with the river or with the coastline rather than against it?” he asks. If restoring mangroves or wetlands cannot fully address the risk, technical retention is an effective next step. Prioritize permanent solutions over temporary ones, because temporary solutions often require more cost-intensive monitoring and maintenance.

Flood protection measures can deliver a strong return on investment. In India, for instance, Aqueduct Floods reports that every $1 spent on flood prevention infrastructure like dikes could result in $248 in avoided damage.

“As the last measure, if your permanent flood risk reduction and your temporary protection methods are only partially covering it, then you need to look at your human elements,” Szönyi says. “What evacuation procedures or safe shutdowns do you have? Do you have to maybe let this facility drown for a while, but can you make sure your business is not completely interrupted during that time?”

This is where resilience comes into play. The concept should move beyond recovery, he says. If an organization has a five-year business plan, it should also have plans for how to achieve those goals despite short-term shocks and stresses. Instead of recovering back to where the organization was before a disaster, a resilient plan would enable the organization to get back on track with where it aspired to go.

The resiliency concept has four Rs that combined drive creative problem-solving amid crisis, Szönyi says: robustness, redundancy, resourcefulness, and rapidity. An organization could invest in robust engineering to keep a risk at bay; multiple facilities or personnel cross-training could produce resiliency; creative problem-solvers bring resourcefulness to the table; and preparedness and planning can help boost rapid responses. But no one element can protect an organization in full.

“Resilience is a multifaceted concept,” he adds. “Resilience means tapping into different kinds of resources and trying to solve the problem from a different angle. That’s how we try to portray this resilience concept. It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube. You have a lot of different colored surfaces, and depending on how you turn your resilience box, you see a new perspective. You see new options.”

For more on this topic, join ASIS Europe 2021 on 23 March for a workshop and interactive discussion on getting to grips with environmental risk. More information is available online here.

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