By Takashi Hongo

What is Weather Index Insurance for Agriculture?

The agriculture sector is recognized as highly vulnerable to climate change due to its reliance on weather conditions. To alleviate the impact of the damage triggered by climate change, two options are available to planners: prevention and mitigation of damage with the construction of physical infrastructure (physical measures) and financial assistance for recovery from the damage (economic measures). 

The Weather Index Insurance for Agriculture (WIIA) is an economic measure designed to mitigate the financial damage. It is a proactive approach for farmers who are particularly exposed to climate change risk:

  •     Farmers buy an insurance policy that covers specific agricultural crops in the event of damage caused by extreme weather conditions.
  •     Farmers pay the insurance premium out of their pocket. 
  •     Farmers receive an insurance payment when pre-determined conditions specified in the policy occur. 

With insurance schemes generally, there are two ways to determine the pay-out to farmers: through verification and based on an index. Conventional insurance is of the verified type, such as automobile insurance. When a car is damaged in an accident, a verifier (claims adjustor) investigates the damage and decides the amount of compensation. Compensation with this method typically takes time, especially when an insurance company receives numerous claims from a particular event. The index type does not require verification, and the company pays automatically when a pre-determined numerical threshold is reached, such as the amount of precipitation or—as with ice cream in cold summer insurance—temperature. Sales of ice cream are typically strong in the summer but turn sluggish in a cold summer. An index insurance policy would compensate for the decrease of sales income when the temperature goes below an agreed level. A benefit of index-based insurance, such as WIIA, is quick and transparent payment. 

Index insurance products offering a hedge against extreme weather risks are already available in many countries such as Japan and the United States and within the European Union. There are similar schemes for agriculture products, although insurance for this sector is not yet common in developing countries.

Index insurance innovation in Thailand
In cooperation with the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), Sompo Japan (Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Insurance, after September 2014), a prominent insurance company, developed WIIA for Thailand in 2010. 

The WIIA was designed to mitigate the economic damage that independent farmers suffer due to a drop in rice production because of low precipitation in July, August and September. This product is offered to farmers who receive a loan from the BAAC. When the level of precipitation reaches the pre-determined condition, the insurance payment is made—to be partially used for repayment of the BAAC loan. In 2012, the WIIA insurance premium ranged from 464 baht to 4,640 baht, depending on the loan amount, and was equivalent to 15-40 per cent of the loan. The premium and coverage amounts were based on historical data and affordability for farmers.  

In its first year of availability (2010), the WIIA was sold in Khon Kaen Province to 1,158 farmers; the following year it expanded to five provinces and more than 6,000 farmers purchased coverage. The Sompo Japan strategy set out to expand in increments, adjusting the policy details along the way for the best fit. In 2014, the WIIA was available in 17 provinces.

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Thailand's WIIA model has been showcased in a variety of platforms as an innovative financial product.

Development of WIIA in Thailand 
In 2007 when JBIC was looking to develop mechanisms that would reduce global climate change adaptation costs, it assembled a group of experts to study the feasibility and potential of the WIIA. The group included Sompo Japan. Following this study, Sompo Japan initiated a feasibility study with BAAC, which was keen to launch the WIIA. The BAAC mission is oriented towards stabilizing the local economy, and the bank was eager to create financial services for farmers to help them reduce the impact from damage caused by weather events. 

Sompo Japan and BAAC agreed to start with rice crop insurance in the north-eastern region of Thailand because of the importance of the crop to farmers there. Rice is harvested twice or more in a year but production is largely dependent on rain-fed irrigation, making livelihoods and the economy highly vulnerable to extreme weather, particularly drought. Sompo Japan and BAAC decided to offer insurance coverage for the first crop in October because it is the major income source for farmers. Their analysis of the historical data indicated that precipitation in summer is critical for rice production, and therefore shortfall in precipitation in July, August and the first half of September became the basis to trigger insurance payment.   

Because it was the first commercial index-based agricultural insurance in South-East Asia, the WIIA experience in Thailand offers several useful lessons. 

  • Local partnership: Farmers were not familiar with insurance in general, and this was the first time they had been exposed to agricultural insurance. The WIIA scheme was well accepted in Khon Kaen Province, where it was introduced. Among the reasons for its success was the partnership with BAAC, the state-owned bank in Thailand with a long history of supporting farmers. The BAAC sold the WIIA insurance policy as an option with the loans it granted which gained the trust of the farmers for weather insurance. The partnership with BAAC was arranged by JBIC which had good cooperation with the bank. 
  • Availability of data: Historical data on weather, rice production and incomes is necessary to develop the required WIIA insurance model. The 10-30 years of historical data that is required to develop the model can be a formidable barrier. Although not available as a statistical database, basic data was accessible in Khon Kaen Province, with BAAC also finding some of the needed data through its networks. 
  • Premium payment capability: In north-eastern Thailand, rice is a commercial commodity for which famers could afford to pay the required premium for insurance coverage. Additionally, coupling of the insurance premium with the loan contract helped ensure that farmers did not find it to be an extra burden.  

WIIA versus other measures
Physical structures, like an irrigation system or a dyke, can prevent and mitigate damage associated with extreme weather events if they are properly designed and constructed. However, it takes time for construction and the cost can be huge. Moreover, they are unlikely to be able to prevent all possible damage. For instance, in Japan, a tsunami breakwater structure was designed under certain assumptions of frequency and magnitude such as once in 100 years. However, as the Great East Japan Earthquake demonstrated, the tsunami was bigger than the design assumption.  

Combining physical measures with economic and monetary measures can be a practical solution to address the damage. A conventional economic measure is 'relief money', to be paid when people are affected by a disaster. Governments at the central and local levels support the recovery of livelihoods through this relief money. It is short-term emergency support, however, and insufficient to cover the cost for a full recovery. Relief money is thus a minimum safety net.
A government-driven national insurance scheme is an effective option, although it takes time to establish. The National Agricultural Insurance Association in Japan (NOSAI Zenkoku), which was established in 1940 under the Agricultural Insurance Act, is an example of an organization which implements a national scheme. NOSAI Zenkoku sells seven types of insurance coverage for agricultural products, farm equipment and structures such as greenhouses. Farmers, as members of the association, pay the premium for the insurance, although the Government of Japan subsidizes half of that payment because the scheme is regarded as integral to the social safety net system. 

WIIA is a viable option to supplement relief money and other measures mentioned above.

Potential and further development of WIIA
With accommodation for the following issues, WIIA can become a nationwide programme in many countries. 

  • Flood risk cover: According to scientific studies, the hydrological cycle will be heavily impacted by climate change, and, in the area covered by the South-East Asian monsoon, the risk of both flood in the rainy season and drought in the dry season will become greater. Farmers need products to cover the damage caused by drought as well as flood. 
  • Data collection: Basic data were available for the case of north-eastern Thailand, but data collection is generally not easy. To construct insurance models for other regions, government support for data collection is essential. Satellite data may be useful but is insufficient to establish the required database for an insurance model. 
  • Subsidies for reducing burden: The WIIA is a self-defence type of instrument, and it can be very helpful in stabilizing the local economy affected by climate change. Its benefits are enormous, and with it, a government can save on expenditure for national safety nets. Government subsidy for the product thus would be worthwhile, such as a subsidy for half of the premium.
  • Underwriting risk: In the early stages of this type of product, individual insurance companies absorb the associated risk. When the product becomes widely adopted, the underwriting risk will exceed the capacity of an individual company, and it will be necessary to use a re-insurance mechanism.

Global adoption of the WIIA can be promoted through the establishment of an international body, with the functions of underwriting the overflow risk, supporting construction of an insurance model and building up the capacity of local insurance companies that sell WIIA.  
The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in 2014) showed that climate change is increasing the probability and scale of extreme events, such as drought, flood, heatwave and heavy storm. It is imperative to take action now to mitigate the risk of climate change events on the agriculture sector. WIIA cannot prevent damage, but it may help farmers and governments recover from the economic damage. When combined with physical infrastructure and other economic measures, WIIA can be a supplemental, proactive and cost-effective mechanism of great value globally.