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Australians underinsured for natural disasters that cost more than $6b a year

Natural hazards cost Australia more than $6 billion each year, a figure predicted to more than triple in the next 30 years.

At the height of the disaster season, experts are calling on "chronically underinsured" Australians to mitigate risk by planning ahead.

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"Two factors that have a strong impact on the ability to bounce back from disasters is the degree of damage sustained and ... the ability to financially fund the recovery," said David Sinai, head of property treaty underwriting at Swiss Re Australia and New Zealand. 

"With this in mind, the most important steps should happen well before the disaster strikes."

In a panel briefing on disaster management hosted by the Australian Science Media Centre, Mr Sinai said home owners needed to ensure they had both the physical and financial resilience to manage a flood, storm, fire or other disaster risk.

Appropriate planning decisions, applying mitigation efforts like flood controls and reducing vulnerability through building codes and retrofitting, are all key to reducing the impact of disaster on assets such as the family home.

Meanwhile, financial resilience in the form of insurance ensures the cost of recovery doesn't become a drag on the economy following a disaster.

Tuesday marked the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquakes, which gave rise to approximately $NZ40 billion of economic loss.

The upside, Mr Sinai said, was that "80 per cent of that loss was insured, resulting in a relatively small 4 per cent net impact to GDP".


He contrasted this with the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a country which suffered $8 billion of economic loss, of which only 1 per cent was insured, having a 130 per cent impact on the country's GDP.

Economics researcher at Monash University Associate Professor Paul Raschky said the "good news" is that economies like Australia tend to recover well from disasters.

"We find only very large natural disasters have an impact on economic growth ... that is only in countries with weak political institutions," he said, pointing to past disasters like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and the 2004 Bali tsunami.

"There is no systematic effect, even of very large disasters, in countries with sound political institutions."

He said "charity hazard" is of greater concern in Australia: one of the reasons people remain uninsured or underinsured is because they anticipate government and private aid.

Insurance Council of Australia spokesperson Campbell Fuller said the "charity hazard" mentality was an unfortunate reality.

"The expectation that government will step in and fix the problem is not true. Government cannot afford to and it's not the role of government to do so," he said.

"If you lose your home and property you are reliant on friends, family, charities and limited government support just to meet your day-to-day requirements."

He said this summer alone had recorded nearly $600 million in insurance losses.

"Many Australians are chronically underinsured ... about 83 per cent of home owners believe they are underinsured and about one in 20 do not have insurance," Mr Fuller said.

"If their property were to be destroyed they just wouldn't be able to resume the quality of life they had."

Mr Fuller said the role of insurers was increasingly to send price signals about risk, prompt community-wide mitigation and encourage property owners to ensure their homes and businesses are better prepared.

"So if we are going to build, let's build in the right places. Where we are building in areas that are prone to natural disaster, let's make sure the structures we put in place are able to withstand current and anticipated natural disasters."

While current estimates place the cost of Australia's natural hazards at $6 billion per year, this figure is set to increase when new estimates by the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities are released in March, including economic costs of the social impacts of natural disasters.