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Gondo residents rebuild, and ponder the safety of their village

The cleanup operation continues in devastated Gondo

(Keystone)

In canton Valais residents are still struggling to recover from the devastating floods that hit their region two weeks ago. Meanwhile questions are being asked about just how safe it is to live in the high mountains nowadays.

In the tiny community of Gondo, the clean up operation is well underway following the disastrous mudslide that wiped out the centre of the village and killed thirteen of its inhabitants.

But for many residents of Gondo, the fact that such a catastrophe could have happened at all is still difficult to believe.

'I looked up and the trees were moving down the mountain,' said Gondo's mayor Roland Squaratti, 'in ten seconds it was all over. There was no chance for the people to escape.'

Mayor Squaratti had been in the process of evacuating people from the lower part of the village near the river when the disaster happened. No one, as town clerk Josef Escher explained, expected danger to come from the mountainside above the village.

'We never thought there would be danger from that side,' said Escher, 'we had a concrete barrier up there to protect us from rock falls, and it seems water collected behind it and then burst through.'

The people of Gondo are especially upset because all the existing emergency procedures had been followed: most people living near the river had already left the village. But since the danger came from a completely unexpected quarter, Gondo was still unprepared.

The floods in canton Valais are only the latest in a series of natural disasters. Floods in canton Berne last year, and the catastrophic damage to Switzerland's forests caused by hurricane Lothar at Christmas, have caused many to wonder whether the extreme weather conditions are caused by climate change - and weather climate change itself may make some mountain areas unsafe to live in.

Geomorphologist Markus Zimmermann recently took part in a national research study looking at the links between climate change and natural disaster. He says laying all the blame at the door of climate change is too easy an answer.

'Climate change may certainly be a contributory factor,' he said, 'but we have to remember that we also had natural disasters a hundred years ago. In fact if there is a link with climate change, it is more likely to be associated with the frequency of extreme events, rather than their magnitude.'

And Zimmermann says we also need to look more closely at our attitude towards living in the mountains nowadays.

'Our expectations have changed completely in the last one hundred years,' he said. 'We expect the authorities to protect us, we expect to be safe all the time, and since for a good part of the time we are safe because of more modern protection measures, when a disaster does affect us we are all the more surprised.'

Zimmermann also says that we be making things more dangerous for ourselves by not living in the mountains as wisely as we should.

'Nowadays many parts of the mountains which we can't honestly say are really safe are permanently inhabited. We have transport facilities, or tourist resorts, where before no one lived.'

At the Federal Department of Water and Geology, there is agreement that we need to look more carefully at how we live in the mountains. Deputy Director Andreas Goetz says alpine communities need to look at every risk, and not just the most obvious ones.

'We can learn lessons from what happened in canton Valais,' said Goetz, 'in Gondo the risks were seen as rock fall, and flooding from the river. That was right, but to increase protection all eventualities need to be looked at.'

Goetz and his colleagues first came to this conclusion following the catastrophic floods of 1987, when it became clear that Switzerland was not properly prepared for natural disaster.

Since then new legislation has been brought in, and a nationwide programme of risk mapping is underway. But drawing up a risk map takes time, and Gondo hasn't got one yet. If it had, the effect of large quantities of water on the rock fall barrier might have been assessed.

But Andreas Goetz stresses that even if every community in Switzerland identified every possible natural hazard, one hundred per cent protection can never be guaranteed.

'You can spend all the money you've got, and build up every kind of protection, and natural disasters will still happen,' he said, 'there is no absolute safety, anywhere. What we need to do is learn to live again with the mountains the way our grandfathers did, they survived, and we will survive. But from time to time there will be victims, I am sure of that.'

Such sentiments may not bring much comfort to the residents of Gondo, who now have to decide whether to return to their devasted village. But Markus Zimmermann says the people should try not to worry too much about what has happened.

'I know it is hard to forget the destruction and loss of life, he said, 'but it is also possible to see the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild in safer parts of the village, or to make the new houses stronger, so that people can begin their lives again with confidence in Gondo.

This is exactly the sentiment mayor Roland Squaratti hopes the people of Gondo will adopt. He is determined to re-build what has been lost.

'I know the village won't be the same,' he said, 'it will be better. We will re-build everything that has been destroyed, and in a year's time we will have a pretty village again.'

by Imogen Foulkes

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