Building resilience against flooding in urban areas

Technical Director, Cenfri

Flooding in urban areas across Africa is on the rise. The continent needs to implement risk-management techniques to ensure its cities are resilient to climate change and the devastation it can cause. This article explores possible ways Africa can build resilience against flooding in urban areas.

Across Africa the annual wet season sees our news reports and social media feeds “flooded” with images of commuters wading through rain and sewerage to get home, cars washed off roads and businesses and livelihoods floating on busy streets. Then, the cleanup begins, the news forgets, people rebuild and, before long, the process repeats.

But it shouldn’t be this way and if we don’t act now the situation will only get worse.

Take Lagos in Nigeria as an example: annual flooding in Lagos has risen in severity over recent years, as climate change progresses. In 2018 alone, flooding caused $4 billion worth of damage, costing around 4.1% of Lagos State’s GDP. The city struggles to manage and recover from these floods, which not only causes disruption to business and social activity but also threatens to eventually make the city unlivable.

Lagos is not alone. More than 70 urban areas face significant flood risks, with 171 million people in sub-Saharan Africa exposed to the dangers of flooding.

In 2019, over 1,000 people were displaced, with roads and bridges destroyed after several days of constant rain in Dar es Salaam. The same happened in 2017 and 2018. In August, at least seven people died after floodwater inundated Addis Ababa

While people will routinely think about taking out insurance for their cars and to cover their health needs, too often they don’t insure against risks like floods. In 2019, SwissRe estimated that 91% ($1 billion) of losses from climate risks in Africa were uninsured.

We need to better manage risk to make our cities more resilient to climate change and the devastation it can cause.

But where do we start? Using Lagos as an example, we combined data, interviews, and models to see how flood risk in the city could be better managed and identified five key takeaways for improvement.

Number one, while flooding happens regularly, most public agencies and private businesses can’t quantify the risk. This includes insurance companies who often struggle to determine their own clients’ exposure. Or think of it this way; how do you know how high to build the bridge, when you don’t know how high the river flows when it floods? When we know this, we can build investment cases for resilient infrastructure and bespoke insurance products.

Which links closely to our second finding: the lack of usable consistent data. Too often data is missing or fragmented. When we lack data, we lose the ability to accurately model risks and impacts. And when we do have data, there is a need for more collaboration between stakeholders to ensure it is used meaningfully.

Third, trust is critical. Throughout the world, consumers can be sceptical of insurance companies and the same is true here. Innovative insurers are looking to address this through deliberately seeking out opportunities to offer clients real value. This also means that insurance companies should move beyond just policy sales, and instead become advisers who can better help clients understand and manage the exposure of their business or property.

Fourth, from flood sensors to satellite-based early warning systems, technology can have a profound impact on how we identify and respond to immediate threats. Partnerships are needed to develop and realise these opportunities, and this requires strong leadership from the local business community and public administration. The insurance industry, and indeed the broader financial sector in Nigeria, have a crucial role in developing local innovation and collaboration, and in leveraging the readiness of African and global reinsurers and experts to provide finance and support.

But as always, even the best data and innovations can only go so far. Leadership is critical. Insurers can step up by adjusting their corporate strategies, but they also need partners with whom to act. In Lagos, institutions such as the Lagos Resilience Office, the Financial Centre for Sustainability Lagos and the Lagos Business School could provide tangible solutions as well as practical advice. Alongside this, agencies such as UKAid funded FSD Africa and other global experts can facilitate support and investment for this process.

Lagos is just one example, but many of the findings offer insights for cities across the continent. With flooding likely to get worse, it is critical to act now to help our cities and communities withstand the flood.

Insurers have a big role to play, and many institutions, including FSD Africa, are ready to partner with innovators to develop new solutions. It’s vital this work is prioritised – to safeguard development gains made in recent years, boost sustainability and protect livelihoods.

This opinion piece was originally published in ESI Africa on 03 October 2021.