By Adriana Keating and Michael Szönyi

There is an urgent need to enhance flood resilience. While we know prevention is better — and more cost-effective! — than cure, investing in pre-event resilience building is a challenge. The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance links expertise from the humanitarian and development sectors, research, and Zurich risk management to meet this challenge. The Alliance’s quest for solutions is being realized in many ways: they developed the Flood Resilience for Communities (FRMC) approach to measure community flood resilience, complete with the tools to practically apply it which  has been used in over 110 communities in nine countries. Not only is it a powerful decision-support tool for at-risk communities, it is the first resilience measurement endeavour to collect the data needed to identify what pre-flood actions really make the difference when the flood comes. Now into its second phase, the Alliance hopes to work with others to share insights to motivate further investment in flood resilience.

Floods are on the rise and things must change

In August of 2018, Toronto was hit with a month’s worth of rain in less than three hours, resulting in widespread flooding, power outages and economic losses. Just a week later in the Indian state of Kerala, catastrophic floods caused over a million people to be displaced and a death toll exceeding 300 people. There is an urgent need to enhance resilience to disasters. Nowhere is this more urgent than in relation to the peril of floods, which affects more people globally and causes more economic damage than any other type of natural hazard.

Flood risk and the resultant loss of life and economic losses are growing as economic opportunities draw people to high risk areas, especially coastal zones. The gap between insured and uninsured losses is also growing. In 2017 alone, this gap from natural hazards amounted to a staggering USD 193 billion (Swiss Re, 2018). Zurich Insurance and the Alliance are working to close this protection gap, both in terms of increasing the proportion of insured risk as well as reducing overall risk, although the focus is mostly on remote and vulnerable areas where insurance penetration is very low.

While we know that prevention is better than cure — that investing in pre-event resilience building is more cost-effective than simply cleaning up after a disaster (Mechler, 2016) — very little is spent before an event strikes. This is because it is more politically palatable to respond to tangible impacts after the flood comes than to invest beforehand in only the possibility of a future flood. This challenge is magnified because the underlying problem of increasing flood risk is risk-insensitive development, and nobody wants to be seen to be hampering growth.

We know that flood risks and economic development are interconnected and thus cannot be tackled without innovation and cooperation of stakeholders with complementary skills. That is why Zurich Insurance has partnered with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, five NGOs, and disaster resilience experts from academia, such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), to form the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance.

The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance

The Zurich Alliance, launched in 2013, is an innovation in how investments in disaster resilience can be funded by tackling disasters and development together, in an integrated way. Working together to build resilience, each organization brings complementary skills and expertise in order to link academic insights, humanitarian and development sector capabilities, and Zurich’s risk management expertise.

The Alliance realized that community flood resilience is far more than just ‘bouncing back’ with good relief and recovery, or building robust infrastructure. Taking a systems perspective linking disasters and development, they defined community flood resilience as “The ability of a community to pursue its development and growth objectives while managing flood risk over time in a mutually reinforcing way” (Keating et al., 2016). This means that a community can continue to develop unhampered by flooding, and efforts to manage flood risk do not get in the way of the community’s development. In other words, flood resilience is living and thriving with floods.

For example, as part of their work with the Alliance and using the FRMC (see below), Concern Worldwide tackled both development needs and disaster risk together via the promotion of sustainable technologies. By promoting solar stoves community wellbeing was improved, and the need to cut down wood for fuel — which can increase flood risk — was reduced.

Working to build community flood resilience in this way means that development and disaster risk reduction (DRR) are not mutually exclusive concepts that need to compete for attention or funding — which they currently often do. Instead they go hand in hand as complementary concepts that need to work together — mainstreaming DRR into development, and ensuring that development aspects are not forgotten in DRR programs. This will help tackle the problem that development often exacerbates existing or creates entirely new risk.

One way for the Alliance to achieve large scale impact is for theoretical learnings to be turned into practical solutions and then used to inform large scale programs. The quest for implemented solutions to enhance community resilience is being realized in many different ways, with one key aspect being resilience measurement.

Case studies

In Peru, communities in the Piura region are now better able to monitor their flood hazards and activate their response plan to protect lives and belongings. This enabled communities to respond effectively to reduce the losses during the devastating El Niño floods in 2017. There was no loss of life in the program areas and in addition, communities managed to leverage additional funding of USD 1.5 million to be invested to further reduce their flood risks.

In Mexico, the need for self-action was identified and 70 community brigades were educated and equipped, serving their local population as first responders, of which 45 brigades in Tabasco were formally certified by the Mexican Civil Protection Agency. This was an unprecedented recognition which may act as nationwide best practice and is already planned to be rolled out to neighboring states.

Partnerships for innovative solutions: Measuring community flood resilience

The Zurich Alliance discovered that building community flood resilience requires an in-depth understanding of the community before implementing solutions, and a consistent impact measurement framework. The experts also found that there was no empirically verified measure of resilience available. To fill this gap, they developed the Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities (FRMC) to holistically measure community flood resilience, complete with the tools to practically apply it.

At the community level the FRMC is a decision-support tool that enables organizations working with communities to understand the system driving both development and flood risk, analyze flood resilience strengths and weaknesses before a flood strikes, and helps identify solutions. The Alliance recognizes that if some solutions cannot be implemented within their program then it is essential to partner with other stakeholders.


Figure 1: The FRMC process

Capturing both the community development elements so often missed in flood risk management, the FRMC is an indicator-based framework that has been built into an integrated web-based tool and mobile data collection App (Keating et al., 2017).

The first version of FRMC was used in over 110 communities in 13 programs in nine countries, generating over 1.1 million data points. This is the first resilience measurement framework to systematically collect the data needed to generate the evidence base for what pre-flood actions really make the difference when the flood comes. Because partnership is a core tenant of the Zurich Alliance, this data is available upon request so that scientists from anywhere in the world can contribute to the research effort.

Community partners have overwhelmingly reported that being part of the Alliance and using the FRMC has been a game-changer for their programs (Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, 2018). The systems-based approach is expanding users’ and community members’ – understanding of the many factors that contribute to resilience. In particular, the long-term approach of the Alliance program has been a key factor in success by providing the time and resources needed to really make change happen. Community programs have been empowered to undertake in-depth cross sectoral analysis prior to designing solutions — something which is bafflingly unusual.

Call to action

Not only is the Alliance helping to better understand and measure community flood resilience, more importantly it has actively built resilience in over 110 communities in Latin America, Asia, the US, and Europe. The total number of direct beneficiaries of the Alliance to-date is approximately 225,000.

Figure 2: Where we work as an Alliance

Now into its second phase, the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance has reconvened for a further five years with Zurich Insurance, Concern Worldwide, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Mercy Corps, Plan International, Practical Action, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, London School of Economics, and ISET International. The aim is to leverage investments by others of USD 1 billion into the flood resilience space to achieve improved policy and practice the world over.

For communities in Canada facing flood risk, there is much knowledge to be shared regarding building community flood resilience. The Zurich Alliance has demonstrated the enormous value of taking a holistic approach to disaster risk management and the critical importance of linking this with a community’s development and growth goals. They have learned that building flood resilience cannot be achieved in the short-term, and instead requires long-term and flexible funding. The FRMC is available for non-commercial use with any flood-prone community worldwide. Having already been applied in many contexts, including two locations in the United States, it is applicable in both more developing rural as well as developed urban contexts.

With the knowledge and experience honed over the first five-year phase, the Zurich Alliance hopes to work with others to share insights to motivate even more investment in flood resilience — because prevention is always better than cure.


Keating, A., Campbell, K., Mechler, R., Magnuszewski, P., Mochizuki, J., Liu, W., Szoenyi, M., and McQuistan, C. (2016). Disaster resilience: What it is and how it can engender a meaningful change in development policy. Development Policy Review 35 (1), pp. 65-91. doi:10.1111/dpr.12201

Keating, A., Campbell, K., Szoenyi, M., McQuistan, C., Nash, D., and Burer, M. (2017). Development and testing of a community flood resilience measurement tool. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 17, pp. 77-101. doi:10.5194/nhess-17-77-2017

Mechler, R. (2016). Reviewing estimates of the economic efficiency of disaster risk management: Opportunities and limitations to using risk-based Cost-Benefit Analysis. Natural Hazards 81(3), pp. 2121-2147. doi:10.1007/s11069-016-2170-y

Swiss Re. (2018). Sigma Report No 1/2018.

Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance. (2018). The Zurich flood resilience program – Phase 1 from 2013-2018.


Adriana Keating is a researcher with the International Institute of Applied System Analysis (IIASA) where her research focuses on the human dimensions of disasters and climate change adaptation. Dr. Keating is an expert in disaster resilience, and has worked with the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance since its inception in 2013.             Michael Szönyi is member of executive staff in the Sustainability function with Zurich Insurance Company. He leads Zurich’s Flood Resilience Program, including the multi-sector alliance with academia, humanitarian organizations and the private sector, aiming to enhance community flood resilience. The alliance was recently extended to run in a second phase from 2018-2023. He has 12 years of insurance industry experience. He has Master Degrees in Natural Hazards Management and in Geophysics, both from ETH Zurich.