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Article | WTW Research Network Newsletter

Flooding during a pandemic: multiplied impacts and a need for shared resilience

By Nalan Senol Cabi , Lucy Stanbrough and Geoffrey Saville | July 20, 2020

Flood impacts can be devastating to homes and businesses, and the threat is increasing due to climate change; it also comes with new complications through potential interaction with COVID-19 impacts, and added pressure on emergency response.
Climate|Medioambiental|Willis Research Network
Climate Risk and Resilience|Pandemic Risk and Response

Flooding is one of the major threats faced by society all around the world and causes on average $3.3 billion insured losses a year (average of global insured flood losses from 1980-2018)1. However, there is potential for this impact to increase due to the knock-on effects of the pandemic we are currently enduring.

With COVID-19 continuing to dominate headlines and boardroom agendas, it is easy to forget that other hazards exist and continue to occur. Since the beginning of 2020, several major floods have impacted developed and emerging economies, causing a series of resilience challenges that stressed the supply chains needed to respond to COVID-19.

Being hit by multiple disasters at the same time is not that rare a phenomenon, yet COVID-19 has underscored the need for systemic resilience, and the need for more effective emergency response, multifaceted thinking and the need to put people risks firmly on the board2. January saw flash floods in Indonesia, Mozambique and Madagascar; winter storms in the US, and in February floods in the UK3 put additional strain on emergency responses.

Floods will continue to occur, and as the year progresses and we move through the hurricane season in the North Atlantic, and then later into winter storms territory from October having an understanding of flooding impacts and thinking about the human health risks will support planning and response.

Flood water is never blue, it’s filthy, smelly and muddy brown!

When we talk about floods for emergency planning or for insurance risk assessment, we look at flood hazard maps where inundation footprints are typically colored in vibrant blue. Looking at those risk maps, one might think clean, fresh water will inundate properties and cause damage, but flood waters are anything but clean and blue. In fact they are filthy and contaminated; muddy browns or shades of dark grey rather than blue.

Diseases spread quickly during floods. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) floods can potentially increase the transmission of the following communicable diseases4:

  • Water-borne diseases, such as typhoid fever, cholera, leptospirosis and hepatitis A
  • Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue and dengue haemorrhagic fever, yellow fever, and West Nile Fever

Having to deal with multiple human health issues could be further complicated by secondary impacts.

Infrastructure disruption

There is also the issue of infrastructure impacts. This can range from sewer treatment plants or chemical plants being inundated and causing floodwaters to become contaminated, through to factories being flooded or inaccessible and causing disruption to industry, as we saw with the Thailand floods in 2011. The effect of flooding will not be limited to property damage or business interruption; there are also complex human health risks to be considered.

For example, one method of controlling the spread of infections and treating patients is quarantine. However, in the case of recent flooding in Maharashtra, India5 due to pre-monsoon showers, the ground floor of a COVID-19 ward had to be evacuated. This is where a scenario-based approach can be used to think through clashing events, with stress testing scenarios becoming incredibly important to test the resilience of a system. These approaches can also be used to model potential future circumstances, for example taking in to account the effects of climate change on flood to think about infrastructure locations and investments.

Mold does not spark joy!

It isn’t just the immediate impacts of floods that should be considered. The longer-term recovery process typically includes removing water and eliminating mold. After standing water has been removed, dampness will persist, and along with that moisture will come mold, mildew and smells. Deep cleanup is needed after floods and this requires expertise, access, specialist equipment and time.

Masks have already become part of our daily lives due to COVID-19, but when cleaning up mold, experts recommend wearing protective gear such as gloves and N-95 (or better) masks, particularly if you suffer from respiratory issues or have a weakened immune system6. According to asthma organizations, “mold associated with damp buildings can trigger nasal congestion, sneezing, cough, wheeze, respiratory infections and worsen asthma and allergic conditions.”7 Flared up respiratory diseases due to mold exposure could put extra pressure on detection of COVID-19 and further stress resources.

The North Atlantic hurricane season officially started on June 1st, and if any storms make landfall, we are likely to have to deal with floods on top of COVID-19 in the next couple months in the U.S. Little is known about the interactions between mold and COVID-19, but there is potential for increased impact on the respiratory systems of those exposed to both, which may boost the already high Covid-19 numbers in the hurricane states8, putting more pressure on health services and slowing the control and recovery from the pandemic.

The big picture

Covid-19 is a ‘wicked problem’ that has affected the whole world at the same time and caused each nation to take a range of actions. Climate change is another ‘wicked problem’9; complex and intractable, impacting the world as a whole, requiring clear and decisive leadership, but simultaneously requiring emergency response at the local level.

As a society we have been dealing with compound impacts of COVID-19 over the last several months. Due to climate change we are destined to see more extreme floods10 and potentially more pandemics. Building resilience to risks associated with both needs to take a holistic approach, and lessons must be learned from how we have responded already. Both public and private sector actors should heed the devastating experience of this global pandemic and make sure that they are not as unprepared for the effects of climate change.













Head of Flood Risks Research

Head of Emerging Risks and Business Engagement, WTW Research Network Team

Lucy Stanbrough MSc, BSc, is a Research Manager at the Willis Towers Watson Research Network. Prior to joining the Research Network, she worked for the Innovation team at Lloyd’s on a range of thought leadership projects and market communities, including: cyber scenarios; virtual reality; NewSpace; city resilience; synthetic biology; climate related risks and disaster risk finance.

Before joining the insurance industry Lucy spent over 10 years as a natural hazards and GIS consultant, alongside working at the UCL Hazard Centre. Lucy has contributed to a number of books on the use of technology and online systems pre, during, and post-disaster. She maintains an interest in the integration of scientific knowledge to business applications, and connecting knowledge to people, and people to knowledge.

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Head of Weather and Climate Risks Research

Geoff joined Willis Towers Watson in 2013, and works with the Willis Research Network stakeholders and academic partners to match business needs to the latest in scientific research, and derive tangible outputs for Willis Towers Watson to help advise its clients to advance their understanding of risk from weather and climate related hazards.

His background is in meteorology and climate science, having worked in forecasting for over a decade for the UK Met Office and Bermuda Weather Service, in all aspects of delivering forecast services from media broadcasting to delivering warnings and actionable guidance on extreme weather phenomena such as tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall leading to flooding.

He holds a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of East Anglia, and a Masters (with distinction) in Climate Change from University College London. He is also an active Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.

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