The rising cost of catastrophes
(The Economist) - Commerce has long been at the mercy of the elements. The British East India Company was almost strangled at birth when it lost several of its ships in a storm. But the toll is rising. The world has been so preoccupied with the man-made catastrophes of subprime mortgages and sovereign debt that it may not have noticed how much economic mayhem nature has wreaked. With earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, floods in Thailand and Australia and tornadoes in America, last year was the costliest on record for natural disasters.
This trend is not, as is often thought, a result of climate change. There is little evidence that big hurricanes come ashore any more often than, say, a century ago. But disasters now extract a far higher price, for the simple reason that the world's population and output are becoming concentrated in vulnerable cities near earthquake faults, on river deltas or along tropical coasts (see article). Those risks will rise as the wealth of Shanghai and Kolkata comes to rival that of London and New York. Meanwhile, interconnected supply chains guarantee that when one region is knocked out by an earthquake or flood, the reverberations are global.
This may sound grim, but the truth is more encouraging. When poor people leave the countryside for shantytowns on hillsides or river banks they are exposed to mudslides and floods, but also have access to better-paying, more productive work. Richer societies may lose more property to disaster but they are also better able to protect their people. Indeed, although the economic toll from disasters has risen, the death toll has not, despite the world's growing population.
Preparing for the worst
The right role for government, then, is not to resist urbanisation but to minimise the consequences when disaster strikes. This means, first, getting priorities right. At present, too large a slice of disaster budgets goes on rescue and repair after a tragedy, and not enough on beefing up defences beforehand. Cyclone shelters are useless if they fall into disrepair. A World Bank study recommends using schools and other bits of normal public infrastructure in disaster-protection plans, so that the kit and buildings are properly maintained.
Second, government should be fiercer when private individuals and firms, left to pursue their own self-interest, put all of society at risk. For example, in their quest for growth, developers and local governments have eradicated sand dunes, mangrove swamps, reefs and flood plains that formed natural buffers between people and nature. Preserving or restoring more of this natural capital would make cities more resilient, much as increased financial capital does for the banking system. In the Netherlands dykes have been pushed out and flood plains restored to give rivers more room to flood.
Third, governments must eliminate the perverse incentives their own policies produce. Politicians are often under pressure to limit the premiums insurance companies can charge. The result is to underprice the risk of living in dangerous areas-which is one reason that so many expensive homes await the next hurricane on Florida's coast. When governments rebuild homes repeatedly struck by floods and wildfires, they are subsidising people to live in hazardous places.
For their part companies need to operate on the assumption that a disaster will strike at some point. This means preparing contingency plans, reinforcing supply chains and even, costly though this might be, having reserve suppliers lined up: there is no point in having a perfectly efficient supply chain if it can be snapped whenever nature takes a turn for the worst. Disasters are inevitable; their consequences need not be.