Cape Town – The 5.5 magnitude earthquake centered in the North West province raises questions about whether the insurance industry is prepared to deal with natural disasters, an insurance company said on Wednesday.
“The tremor… provides a wake-up call to the insurance industry about the need to prepare effectively for large scale disasters,” MUA Insurance Acceptance managing director Christelle Fourie said in a statement.
She said most insurance companies only cover earthquakes caused by natural disasters and not caused by mining activity. “People should check their cover as they might not have full cover,” she said. “This is a wake up call for insurance companies and holders. ”
One person was killed and 34 injured when the earthquake hit shortly after midday on Tuesday, causing scares in mining operations and evacuations in parts of the country.
People in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, and the Northern Cape reported feeling the quake, as did people in neighbouring Mozambique and Botswana.
In 2012, the Catdat Damaging Earthquake Database found that only 7.5% of earthquake-related losses were covered by insurance companies.
The database by Wills Research Network compiles information on global “catastrophes”.
Fourie said the Catdat statistics raised important questions over the preparedness of insurance companies to help the rebuilding process.
“While it has yet to be proven that earthquakes are related to climate change, insurance and reinsurance companies have been among the first companies to start feeling the effects of natural disasters in the form of increased payouts related to severe weather events like floods and storms,” she said.
“In South Africa, most insurance companies are aware of the implications of climate change but more does need to be done in order to better understand its full impact.
Fourie said South Africa had become “relaxed” about disaster risks.
“Due to the fact that South Africa is not a country with a recent history of extreme natural disasters, we have become somewhat relaxed about disaster risks, let alone the possibility of loss accumulation.
“Part of the problem is that the memory of an extreme natural disaster lasts for only one generation. If it survives, it does so merely as anecdote.”
Fourie gave an example of the earthquake in Ceres, in the Western Cape, in 1969. It measured 6.3 on the Richter scale and destroyed many buildings and resulted in fatalities.
“Because this occurred four decades ago, it becomes easier for us to behave as if we are immune to the possibility of being hit again,” she said.
Seismology experts say South Africa’s potential for earthquake damage comes in the form of natural seismic activity, mining-related events from deep underground mining, and earthquakes that occur outside our borders but are nevertheless strong enough to create some kind of effect.
“While the risk facing South Africa is certainly not as significant as a number of other regions, the insurance industry is aware of earthquake risk and has factored it into premiums,” said Fourie.
“But it might take a larger, seismic event, to test just how seriously it is rising to the challenge.”
She said 2013 was a terrible year for most insurance companies. “In 2012 we had a massive hail storm and then six months later we had another one,” she said. “It was the first time in 10 years that we dealt with a natural disaster. It is important to understand that insurance companies do have protection for catastrophic effects. They can afford to withstand a earthquake and there will be money to pay.”
Fourie also questioned whether South Africa’s emergency services were prepared for major natural disasters. “Insurance companies have more of a noble purpose than most people are prepared to admit as they are in there first to rebuild communities damaged from natural disasters.”
Fourie said she decided to speak out about the subject to start a general conversation about South Africa’s preparedness.