Jakarta is sinking, and at the worst possible time. As sea levels creep higher, the coastal megalopolis continues to pump too much water from its underlying aquifers, causing the land to collapse by almost a foot a year in some places. A modern city, home to 10 million people, is in danger of disappearing: According to one researcher’s models, 95 percent of north Jakarta could be submerged by 2050.
It’s a slow-motion disaster made all the more dire by the fact that very few people in Jakarta have insurance, one of the handful of things that can help a population ride out rising seas and fiercer storms. Just how small is Indonesia’s insurance industry? Well, it has 300 fully accredited actuaries—the professionals who calculate risk—a number it’s scrambling to boost. In Canada that number is 3,400, and it’s got a seventh the population that Indonesia has. And, of course, its capital city isn’t sinking and flooding the way Jakarta is.
To make matters worse, Jakarta’s poorest and most vulnerable residents—those least able to afford insurance—often live in the most flood-prone places. Cultural and religious factors also play a role: Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, and some Muslims see conventional insurance products as counter to their faith. (Some companies offer sharia-compliant policies.)
“Yes, some Muslims might find insurance inappropriate, but to me it is more because of a lack of financial literacy,” says Iene Muliati, a fellow of the Society of Actuaries of Indonesia. “They don’t understand why the product is important.” In addition, Muliati says, there is an expectation that family members will look out for each other.
But Indonesians, and indeed all of humanity, haven’t seen a crisis quite this daunting. The sea is swallowing up the nation’s 17,000 islands, so families can’t just move down the street to escape danger. They’ll need money to relocate and find new livelihoods—money that insurance can provide.
A solution here might be microinsurance, an affordable way for low-income people to protect their crops and homes against disaster, right through a mobile phone. “But again, if people don’t understand why they need the product, and if they don’t have disposable income, they won’t buy it,” says Muliati.
Complicating matters further is the fact that insurers—not only in the developing world but all across the planet—have already started avoiding certain areas or jacking up their premiums. “Increasingly, what you’re finding is that insurance is becoming unavailable to people,” says Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation at Canada’s University of Waterloo. “The amount they would have to pay in premiums becomes logarithmic—in other words, it’s off the charts.”
But the insurance industry doesn’t exist to not sell insurance. “That’s the equivalent of McDonald’s saying, ‘We’re not going to sell hamburgers,’” says Feltmate. “The business of insurance is to sell insurance.” The question now is how you peddle risk mitigation in a world of ever more unpredictable risks.
In Canada, for instance, climate change is fueling extreme rain events, inundating cities like never before, in large part because natural buffers like marshes and forests have been stripped away by development. The obvious solution is adaptation—not only cutting greenhouse gas emissions quickly and dramatically but also reinforcing cities against rising seas and extreme weather events. It’s a good investment, really: A dollar spent on adaptation saves between $4 and $10 in recovery efforts when disaster rolls through, according to Feltmate.
But not every nation has the funds, or the political will, for such pursuits. (Even the famously progressive Californians can’t agree on how to fight rising seas.) At the moment, Muliati says, Indonesia’s approach is “not really preventive; it’s more responsive.” That’s true “even in the areas like Jakarta where we know the land is below the sea.”
Still, Indonesia is taking steps to prepare itself for the coming decades. Last year, the government announced that it would start insuring public buildings to better prepare for disasters. And by 2021, the University of Waterloo is aiming to produce 745 new graduates in actuarial science through its Risk Management Economic Sustainability and Actuarial Science Development in Indonesia program (aka READI).
“It has only really been in the last five years or so that not just Indonesia but the world has more or less shaken its head and said, yeah, this is a real problem,” says Jean Lowry, project director of READI. “The insurance sector, and actuaries in particular, are all fact-based. You can’t sell them on anything unless they see the numbers.”
Take it from one of the businesses with the most to lose: The climate reckoning has come.
More Great WIRED Stories
- Lunar mysteries that science still needs to solve
- The hard-luck Texas town that bet on bitcoin—and lost
- How to save money and skip lines at the airport
- This poker bot can beat multiple pros—at once
- On TikTok, teens meme the app ruining their summer
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones.
- 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter