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Swiss rethink flood control measures

Flooded fields in canton Bern, August 2007 Keystone

The number of floods worldwide increased markedly in 2007, reflecting the threat posed by global warming, according to a UN-backed research group.

Switzerland was not spared. In August 2007 torrential rain left low-lying areas and the northwest of the country under water. This followed heavy flooding in 2005 that cost the country an estimated SFr2.5 billion ($2.04 billion).

The Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) said on Friday that in 2007 there were some 399 disasters worldwide, of which more than half were flood-related, affecting some 164 million people.

“There were no real mega-disasters in 2007, which is the good news, but economic losses were higher than the year before,” Debarati Guha-Sapir, centre director, told journalists in Geneva.

“We see more extreme events overall, not geological ones like earthquakes and volcano eruptions, but very many more windstorms and floods,” she said. “Current trends are consistent with the prediction of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Model behaviour

According to observers, Switzerland is by and large ready for such major natural disasters. Nevertheless, experts are rethinking the way in which the country needs to prepare itself.

“Switzerland has always been a model; I think it’s very well developed,” Helena Molin-Valdes, deputy director of the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, told swissinfo.

“So much money has been invested in early-warning systems, land-use planning and legal instruments. The population has also learned to live with these issues,” she said.

But for Hans Peter Willi, head of hazard prevention at the Federal Environment Office, there is room for improvement and the Swiss need to improve their preparedness by developing an integrated risk management strategy.

“This means town and country planning that is better adapted to the dangers in Switzerland,” he said. “We need to re-check all our concepts, as we have observed that the situation changes.”

“If we want to have the same security as in the past, we have to adapt our systems.”

Recent experiences have led to a complete change in thinking in favour of natural solutions instead of “technical” land management, explained geologist Aurèle Parriaux of Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology.

“Rather than struggling against floods, we are learning to live with them. It takes time to put in place and create projects which communes and landowners accept,” he said.

He highlighted the successful example of the third correction of the flow of the River Rhone in canton Valais, where farmers have been persuaded to allow their land to be used as flood plains when certain dykes and rivers are in danger of bursting their banks.

“The engineers seem to accept the idea and things are changing with the politicians,” he said.

Anti-flood measures

The 2007 floods led to calls for specific anti-flood measures.

According to the Federal Environment Office, several projects are underway to eliminate weaknesses identified in river and canal dykes.

Hydrological forecasting, which enables cantonal and communal authorities to make quick decisions whenever there is a risk of high floodwater, is another area which is being improved.

The authorities are also pressing ahead with the creation of national hazard maps but they are taking much longer than planned. They are now due by 2011.

The government has budgeted some Sfr147 million a year for the next four years for flood-control measures. But although the money is welcome, it will not cover everything being planned by the cantons, Willi warned.

However, the most pressing matter is an alarm system, he said, “as with a relatively small investment you can achieve a considerable reduction in damage”.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

Because of Switzerland’s federal system, federal authorities are only supposed to act in a support capacity in the case of a natural disaster.
The Civil Protection Office oversees everything to do with intervention on the ground.
The Federal Water and Geology Office is responsible for prevention. It houses the secretariat of the extra-parliamentary committee PLANAT.
To fulfil its prevention brief, PLANAT brings together public authorities, researchers, insurers and other experts.

In the case of extreme weather or serious earthquakes, the National Alarm Centre sends the alerts of the Swiss Meteorological Office or the Swiss Seismological Service to the affected cantons, the army, the Federal Police Office and other parties.

The alert to the population is communicated by the 7,750 sirens spread across the country and normally operated by the cantonal police.

The population is then supposed to tune in to the radio stations of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation for information.

The 206 recorded floods last year accounted for more than half of the world’s 399 natural disasters. This compared with an annual average of 172 floods between 2000-2006.

Nearly 200 million people worldwide were affected by disasters last year, half of them in China, which suffered heavy floods in June and July.

Losses from natural disasters amounted to $62.5 billion in 2007, up from $34 billion in 2006. Some of these losses were the result of damage to costly insured structures in rich countries.

An earthquake in Japan in July cost $12.5 billion and Europe’s winter storm Kyrill caused $10 billion in damage. Summer floods in Britain caused $8 billion in damage, while huge wildfires in California cost $2.5 billion.

Poor development strategies contributed to the large number of flood-related deaths in Asia, said Debarati Guha-Sapir, lead author of the report. Large-scale construction projects, increasing urbanization and a growing gap between rich and poor in some of Asia’s most populous nations will result in further flood disasters, she warned.

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