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Green groups sound alarm over floods

The flood protection project at the Flaz river in the Engadine has won an award

(Keystone)

Swiss environmental groups are calling on the government to play a larger role in flood protection, following August's devastating floods.

But the cabinet this week dismissed accusations that it is not providing sufficient funds for prevention efforts.

Criticism from various quarters has mounted since floods hit Switzerland in late August, causing SFr2 billion ($1.6 billion) in damage and leaving six people dead.

Environmental groups argue that the main problem lies in the fact that responsibility for the programme is divided between the government, cantons and communes. They also condemn moves to cut costs.

But in the final week of the regular autumn session of parliament, Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger rejected claims by representatives of the Green Party and the centre-left Social Democrats that the government was not providing sufficient funds for prevention efforts.

He pointed out that parliament had agreed to public-spending cuts which had resulted in delays to work on floodwater-prevention projects.

Blame game

In August the mayor of the capital, Bern, openly accused cantonal authorities of shirking their responsibilities.

A city district on the River Aare was partially submerged by flooding and dozens of people had to be evacuated. It was the second such incident in six years.

Floodwater protection in Switzerland is the domain of the cantons but the government oversees the programme. The government, cantons and communes share the costs.

Andreas Götz of the Federal Office for Water and Geology says it makes sense to have local authorities in charge.

"Because there are vast differences between the regions in Switzerland, the cantons are able to work in a much more goal-oriented fashion," he said.

Leading role

But this view is not shared by some non-governmental organisations, including the Swiss Foundation for Protection of the Landscape.

The foundation, which promotes intelligent town and country planning as a means of better containing floodwater damage, says that it is not against local governments taking a leading role. But it wants better coordination between federal and local authorities.

"Federalism can lead to each municipality deciding in its own best interests, especially during emergencies," explained the foundation's Richard Patthey.

WWF Switzerland's Andreas Knutti agrees. "We would be happy if the government would negotiate more concretely and put more pressure on the communes," he said.

For its part, Greenpeace Switzerland has criticised the fact that the government only has a strategic role in developing floodwater policies, especially as this also relates to climate policy.

"Circumstances are compelling us to deal faster with climate protection issues," said Greenpeace's Alexander Hauri.

He added that there were too many groups lobbying in their own interests, such as the car and oil industry.

Under fire

The government has also come under fire for trying to cut costs in the area of flood protection as part of an across-the-board saving programme. Money is also tight on the cantonal and communal level.

Both Götz and the WWF have voiced their scepticism that saving money in this area is good for flood protection in Switzerland.

The WWF has suggested setting aside a set percentage of water fees for river restoration projects, a funding approach that has already been tested at local level.

But Götz says people must also accept that there is no absolute guarantee against flooding. A comprehensive plan of flood-risk zones in Switzerland is expected to be ready within eight to ten years.

"We have only a few experts and it takes time to implement a modern floodwater policy," said Götz.

The Swiss Foundation for Protection of the Landscape also cautions against being overly optimistic.

The flood-risk plan is controversial, it says, and the question of funding will not be easily solved.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

Floodwater protection is the task of the cantons. The government supports the cantons and oversees the programme.
Major flooding in 1987 and 1999 caused damage worth more than SFr8 billion ($6.5 billion).
The bill from the recent floods is estimated at around SFr2 billion.
The cost of renovating floodwater protection for the largest rivers is expected to run into billions of Swiss francs.

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