How to achieve flood resilience? Embrace innovation

Floods are now causing more economic, social and humanitarian losses worldwide than any other type of natural hazard and are affecting 250 million people each year on average, according to the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. With climate change, population growth and urbanization, the problem is only expected to worsen in the coming years.

In 2013, Zurich Insurance Group launched its global flood resilience program as a corporate social responsibility initiative backed by the Z Zurich Foundation. The initiative established a series of cross-sector partnerships with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the Wharton Business School, Practical Action and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis — consciously bringing together the humanitarian, development, academic and private sector. Together they launched dozens of community programs in Mexico, Indonesia, Nepal, Peru and Bangladesh. Although fruitful, the programs revealed a host of challenges when it comes to creating innovative solutions to support resilience.

“The challenge for floods is that we’re just investing too much money into response and recovery — we’re basically paying out humanitarian relief and aid money to build back things in the same way as before,” Linda Freiner, program manager for the Zurich Flood Resilience Program, told Devex. “This is really the biggest challenge and opportunity that the international development community is facing … When we tried to look for innovative solutions out there, we could not find that much.”

Now, Zurich is teaming up with the Global Resilience Partnership for a new round of funding from the Global Resilience Challenge. The Water Window project will offer up to $1 million in grants for innovative ideas that encourage flood resilience.

Below are more highlights with our conversation with Freiner about the role of the international development community in building flood resilience, and the opportunities for cross-sector partnerships.

The Water Window is looking at receiving concept notes from various fields such as meteorology, design and finance. Why appeal to such a broad range of actors?

We need solutions across the board, from technology to different types of risk transfer mechanisms, to management, trying to influence policy, and improving education. The categories that we listed for the Water Window are the biggest ones that we see can help. There’s no priority from one to the other. What makes this Water Window unique is the fact that we’re going to focus on a specific pillar: floods. The first Global Resilience Challenge was kept open. Now we want to look at water, and we want to get funders on board. The next pillar may be drought, or WASH, and so on … These areas are the ones where I think the development community has the biggest struggle to renew itself and help to create resilience.

You also called for concept notes regarding risk transfer mechanisms. Are there interesting examples of existing programs that you can cite?

We’ve actually seen very little of it. Of course when we come in and say, “We’re an insurance group,” everyone is saying, “Well, are you coming here to sell us insurance?” But most of the communities where we’re operating are some of the most vulnerable communities in the world, who often don’t even know what a bank account is. In some areas, I think that communities can try to build themselves some sort of catastrophe fund by encouraging community members to put money aside. It can also be trying to do better cost and benefit analyses — if we invest in these types of solutions today, then we will have a payback later down the line.

It also has a lot to do with income. A lot of the challenges that happen when a flood comes is that it strikes out the livelihoods of these communities. So they also need to think about how they can maintain a revenue even in times of floods. That means trying to change the way they do agriculture, or the types of services that they provide, or how they can actually generate income in spite of the floods.

One big thing that we’ve seen in Indonesia is that waste management is one of the biggest causes of river floods in Jakarta. Upstream communities throw waste into the river, which gets clogged and creates floods downstream. Can we find different types of financing mechanisms to encourage communities to collect waste and maybe turn it into fertilizers, or have some sort of recycling process that they can earn money from?

Your flood resilience program has involved working with different actors such as NGOs and research institutes. What have you learned from cross-sector partnerships, and what do these partnerships bring to the table?

The fundamental belief behind our flood resilience program is that you need to work across sectors. Floods is such an interconnected, interdependent problem, that it cannot be tackled by one stakeholder alone. We need to gather partners with complementary skills and expertise, which is why we want to connect academia to humanitarian organizations to insurance companies.

It’s been harder than we thought to change practices and to bring in big organizations to do things differently, and to also work across sectors. You come from very different perspectives and you need to work very closely together to leverage that complementarity and to get everyone on board.

What we are hoping from the Water Window is that more smaller organizations will participate, because I think they can bring a creativity that might be a bit harder for big, established organizations to bring, because they tend to do things in the same way as they always used to do. We’re hoping [for the Water Window to be] a bit of an incubator for small-scale projects.

As an insurance group and a private sector entity, how do you fit within the range of actors working on flood resilience, and what expertise can you bring to this issue?

Floods in themselves are natural, but the disasters they create are man-made, because of urbanization and population growth in exposed areas. The big opportunity for the development sector is to bring the private sector into the game and not just think of them as funders. The private sector can really bring the skills and expertise that these organizations don’t necessarily have themselves, but it needs to be a good fit for private sector organizations. We also have a business to run, so for us it’s really important that it fits well with our strategy and the mission and what we want to achieve as a company.

The group is a signatory of United for disaster resilience, the insurance industry’s statement in support of disaster risk reduction, and has made a voluntary commitment to the Insurance industry commitments to build disaster resilience and promote sustainable development. What do these commitments mean for Zurich?

What is unique in our approach is that yes, we signed all these statements and a lot of our peers sign them as well, but personally, I don’t think these statements necessarily lead to action. With the flood resilience program and adding the Water Window to it, we try to take a very hands-on approach in terms of getting involved in community programming, in the development sector, and bringing our skills and expertise.

[We want to go] beyond signing statements about how things could be, and actually build our own programs on the ground. Through our research and through our community programs, we try to bring that back to our business, and have that learning influence the way we help our customers better manage flood risk. It really goes both ways.