11 Apr 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Mississippi mayors and insurance executives tackle disaster resilience

REUTERS/Office of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon

“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it… nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon,” Mark Twain wrote in his 1883 memoir Life on the Mississippi.

As in Twain’s era, the river system continues to have a great impact, not only in the popular imagination but also in sustaining livelihoods and biodiversity.

The Mississippi – North America’s longest river – generates nearly $500 billion in annual revenue, employing 1.5 million people in the ten US states along its banks. Waterways and ports of the river’s entire corridor provide over half a million jobs, generating over $83 billion in annual revenue.

But the river and its communities are facing significant challenges. Since 2012, the Mississippi has experienced flooding and droughts that have caused over $50 billion in damage. According to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the costliest year ever for weather and climate disasters in US history, totaling $306 billion, including impacts in the Mississippi River corridor.

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Utility workers start the repair and restoration of power after a tornado hit the town of Tupelo, Mississippi April 30, 2014.  (©: REUTERS/Gene Blevins)

Mississippi River communities are being hit hard by these disasters, but they do not have the technical or funding capacity to address their climate vulnerabilities on their own. Due to the prominence of the region, ensuring that action is taken throughout the mainstream corridor to protect people, natural systems, and economies is of utmost importance.

In reaction to these natural disasters, the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI) – an association that promotes economic and environmental security and stability in the river’s corridor – has taken on the challenge of promoting resilience and reducing disaster risk along the Mississippi.

The MRCTI brings together the mayors of 80 Mississippi rivers cities and towns. It gives a common voice to those who depend most upon the river and its membership comprises over two-thirds of the communities along the river.

“We realize that the river is a natural asset that we believe is under-appreciated,” said Lionel Johnson Jr, Mayor of St Gabriel, Louisiana, and co-chair of the mayoral forum. “We should protect the Mississippi River, it is a jewel. It is key to our economic sustainability and we need to have frank conversations with our constituents and the challenges we face need a holistic problem-solving approach. We can’t do this in silos.”

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A gas station is partially submerged in floodwater in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in Braithwaite, September 2012 (©: REUTERS/Lee Celano)

On 7 March in Washington, DC, UN Environment’s North America Office, in partnership with the MRCTI and the UN Environment Finance Initiative, convened a roundtable dialogue for over 20 mayors, along with leaders from the global and North American insurance industry. The aim of the roundtable was to discuss how to reduce vulnerabilities and build resilience in the face of climate-related disasters along the River corridor. The dialogue was also attended by federal, state, and philanthropic partners.

The event marked the first time that these stakeholders had participated in a structured dialogue with each other.

“The insurance industry has a lot of experience in assessing risk and there are companies dedicated to modeling catastrophic natural events,” said Barbara Hendrie, the Director of UN Environment North America. “The industry is increasingly active in working upstream with policymakers in cities and regions around the world to manage disaster risk. We were delighted to be able to use our convening platform as UN Environment to bring industry stakeholders together with Mississippi mayors for the first time, to consider how to collaborate in reducing disaster risk along the River Corridor.”

Alex Kaplan, Senior Vice President and Head of Global Partnerships for Swiss Re, said: “We need to assess risk on a global scale and in a holistic, forward-looking, manner. We can’t just worry about the next flood but rather we need to think about how the world will look 50 years from now.”

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A derailed train sits in floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in Braithwaite, Louisiana September 1, 2012. (©: REUTERS/Lee Celano)

One of UN Environment’s key initiatives is the Principles for Sustainable Insurance (PSI). PSI serves as a global framework for the insurance industry to address environmental, social and governance risks and opportunities. It is a global initiative to strengthen the insurance industry’s contribution to building resilient, inclusive and sustainable communities and economies.

More than 100 organizations worldwide have adopted the four Principles for Sustainable Insurance, including insurers representing more than 25 per cent of world premium volume and $14 trillion in assets under management.

In March 2015, UN Member States adopted the Sendai Framework, a 15-year voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that the state has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders, including local government and the private sector.

UN Environment, which is the leading global environmental authority, is one of the signatories to the framework. 

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work to promote resilience within the insurance industry and the wider finance industry.

Contact Hilary French at hilary.french@un.org