Learning from the Thai floods

Thai flood street scene. Accreditation: Wutthichai / Shutterstock.com

It was October 2011 when, after weeks of slowly spreading their way through many of Thailand’s provinces, flood waters eventually reached the capital city, Bangkok. There they remained for several weeks, inundating large swathes of the city and causing damage to homes and businesses.

But it was out of the city in the major industrial parks that the impact was felt on a global scale as production ground to a halt and supply chains around the world were left short. Seven major industrial estates were inundated by as much 3 meters (10 feet) during the floods.

The economic cost of the floods was $45.7bn, according to the World Bank. For insurance and reinsurance companies, the total claims tally – much of it from business interruption and contingent business interruption – came to an estimated $12bn, according to figures from Swiss Re. Lloyd’s share of this was $2.2bn.

Supply chain disruption

As a major producer of hard drives, the floods meant producers of PCs and servers were unable to access component parts as easily. As a result, the cost of hard drives more than doubled.

Japanese electronics and motor manufacturers took a big hit with Sony, Nikon, Canon, Honda, Nissan and Toyota factories among those affected.

Ironically, a number of Japanese organisations had located their manufacturing premises in Thailand to take advantage of the country’s lower overheads but also to avoid some of the catastrophe exposures at home.

Coming just seven months after the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami there was a double hit for many businesses. For Japan’s big three property casualty insurers, the floods proved more costly than the March 2011 earthquake.

An eye opener

Thailand’s important role as a key supplier to global supply chains had grown quickly over the past two decades as the country’s economy developed rapidly. This role was underestimated, thinks Willis Re chairman Peter Hearn.

“One of the most difficult losses the global industry has had to manage is the flood loss which occurred in Thailand at the end of 2011,” said Hearn in a statement. “Exposures were significantly underestimated, especially as regards the extent of global connections across sophisticated supply chains.”

In addition to its global supply chain exposure, the country’s flood hazard had not been modelled and was poorly understood and appreciated.

“Of all the cat perils, flood is the most frequent to occur and the most complex to model,” says Adityam Krovvidi, head of Aon Benfield’s Impact Forecasting in Asia Pacific. “This is due to its varied phenomena, ever increasing human interventions and climate variability.

“Notwithstanding these factors, Thailand had no major flood loss experience before 2011 to receive the attention of the insurance industry.”

“However, flood risk is not static and socio-economic factors have changed over time in Thailand, he continues. “A little more rain than the historical maximum in the northern region led to a ‘perfect storm’ last year, aided by man-made factors. The event was not a ‘Black Swan’ – the industry simply never paid sufficient attention to potential flood risk – we were simply fooled by historical experience.”

Impact Forecasting is currently working on a riverine flood risk model for Thailand. The model, which will be released in November, is timed to assist clients during the 1 January 2013 renewals.

“The Thailand floods provide a great learning opportunity to take these risks more seriously,” says Krovvidi. “Now the big question is, ‘Where is the next Thailand?’. The solution lies in an analytical and scientific approach that identifies where the exposures are and evaluates how they are exposed to potential flood risks.”  

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