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Flood-alarm system needs investment

Could scenes like this be avoided in future?

(Keystone)

A leading hydrology expert has called for more money to be invested in creating a better flood-warning system in Switzerland.

Professor Paolo Burlando, of Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology, said the country's flood-alert system must be better coordinated in future, after thousands were caught unawares by last week's flooding.

Other countries, including Japan, already have hi-tech systems in place to predict floods and warn people in time to evacuate.

The Swiss model can be improved, according to Burlando, of the Institute of Hydromechanics and Water Resources Management.

"We could probably improve the whole chain of our flood-forecast system to make it more effective," Burlando told swissinfo.

"That chain should consist of a system that integrates quantitative weather predictions and streamflow forecasts with the decision making process. Warnings can better be disseminated from a centralised authority to local authorities who can take the relevant actions.

Information chain

"With this chain in place information and alerts can be disseminated using mobile telephones, the internet and other means of communication."

Burlando said the flood-warning system in Japan, which uses cameras, satellites and GPS systems to send mobile-phone alerts, is better integrated than in Switzerland because of the long experience in Japan of coping with different natural hazards.

And he believes that more resources could be spent in Switzerland on developing a similar system with research institutes combining their efforts.

"Civil protection is part of the Japanese culture because they are so used to earthquakes and tsunamis," he said.

"Also, the landscape and flood hazards there are similar to Switzerland so I believe that a similar warning system could be used here with the necessary adjustments.

More money

"The technology and researchers are already in place in Switzerland to develop our own system, but that cannot be done unless more resources are mobilised. We just have to make the decision to do it."

The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research is trying to adapt avalanche-warning systems in the Alps to alert people to the risk of flooding.

The institute wants to use data from alpine meteorological stations, which measure precipitation and snow cover, to provide local observers with information.

"The reaction time in mountainous regions is very limited," said the institute's Christoph Hegg. "They might have less than half an hour to react to a flood warning, so it is essential that they get the information quickly.

"The idea is to train responsible people to make decisions on a sound basis rather than by using intuition alone. However, it will take more than ten years before we have coverage across the entire area."

Andreas Götz of the Federal Office for Water and Geology also called for a tighter integration of the current system, noting that Japan already had a modern flood-warning model in place.

"All the players have to work together to ensure that we have the best possible use of a warning system," he said. "Discussions are already underway, and I think improvements can be made in the short term."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Key facts

Swiss Solidarity, the fundraising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation - swissinfo's parent company - is holding a national fundraising day on August 31 for those worst affected by the flooding.
Donations can be made through post office account 10-15000-6.
The death toll from the floods in Switzerland currently stands at six.

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