Natural Disasters and Risk Management from a Global North-South Perspective

Session Organisers:  Welf Werner (Heidelberg University), Natalie Rauscher (Heidelberg University), Johannes Bohle (Flensburg University)


Risks from and vulnerability to natural disasters are global phenomena, that have received more attention in the recent past as part of climate change discourses. Regions in the global North (for example North America) and the global South (for example Latin America or South-East Asia) are regularly hit by events such as hurricanes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, or earthquakes. But how successful have these regions responded to these risks over time and what role has insurance played in this response? In North America, the United States, as one of the leading industrial countries, has displayed sharply rising costs and damages from natural catastrophes for a long time. While remaining a highly-insured country, the U.S. has nevertheless failed to mitigate the effects and costs of extreme weather events and other natural disasters effectively. In other parts of the world, major natural events often still cost many lives and destroy the livelihoods of large parts of the population. Especially the global South remains under-insured when it comes to these losses. Being under-insured or even uninsured can be seen as an indicator of the divide between the Global North and the Global South, “[…] a contested marker of the boundaries between normal modernity and the unmodern” as Zwierlein (2010: 269) puts it.

There are more recent developments of changing insurance technologies and policies to (re-)integrate regions of the Global South into the global (re)insurance markets. For instance, in the Caribbean, the implementation of parametric insurance policies combined with elaborate catastrophe models is a way to address slow-onset disasters induced by the regional impacts of climate change and everpresent low probability/high impact perils like hurricanes on a regional scale. Yet, looking at the development over the last century, there nevertheless seem to be positive longterm developments. Quite a few regions and countries in Asia display an overall decrease in losses in the 20th century, especially in lives lost, from extreme weather events and other natural disasters.

This session will explore some of the following questions from a comparative perspective: How have specific countries and regions in the global North and South addressed the issue of rising risks from natural disasters over the past century and in recent decades? Which regions and countries have been successful/less successful in mitigating costs and damages from natural catastrophes (in the long run)? Aside from the development of insurance markets, what kinds of government interventions and risk management strategies have been implemented successfully/less successfully in the North and the South?

Reference: Zwierlein, C. (2010): Insurances as part of "human security", their timescapes and spatiality. In: Historical Social Research 35, 4, pp. 253-274.