«Over time, we have progressed towards an integrated risk management.»

Article, 19.05.2014

At the invitation of Switzerland's OSCE Chairmanship, around 150 delegates from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will meet in Montreux on 20 May to discuss the prevention of natural disasters. The next day, they will undertake two field visits in the Canton of Valais to learn about Switzerland's expertise in this field. A member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA), Eric Bardou also works in Valais as a water engineer for the Research Centre on Alpine Environment (CREALP). Because of this dual role, he played a key part in the organisation of the field visits.

Eric Bardou coordinated the field visits in Valais where the OSCE delegates will have a chance to observe the strategies set up by Switzerland to prevent natural disasters.

Eric Bardou, what will the programme of field visits that Switzerland has put together consist of?
We will offer two optional field visits to the participants of the OSCE meeting. The first will focus on the problem of alluvial plains that are subject to river flooding. The Rhône valley is a case in point. Experts from the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) will speak about the Third Rhone Correction project, which is currently under way, and about measures implemented in response to the seismic tremors that are regularly recorded in Valais. The second field visit will take our guests to the Great Saint-Bernard Tunnel motorway, where they will be briefed on various mountain hazards – avalanches, mudslides, landslides – and year-round risk management measures. For obvious reasons, roads connecting two countries such as this motorway linking Switzerland and Italy receive particular attention.

Is there any kind of Swiss "trademark" or expertise to prevent natural disasters?
You might say so, yes. The Canton of Valais faces a very wide range of potential natural hazards. Let's take avalanches: the first protective structures were built more than 60 years ago. Over time, and especially following the disasters Switzerland experienced at the turn of the century – such as the deadly floods in Brienz – we've progressed towards what's known as integrated risk management.

What does that mean?
It means that in the event of a natural disaster, a whole range of appropriate prevention, preparation and response measures have to be considered together and coordinated. We used to draw up "hazard maps" but we came to realise that the problem was not quite that simple. Integrated risk management brings together a wide range of stakeholders: the winter security services that dynamite unstable snow pack, forest rangers who see forests as protective structures, MeteoSwiss, hydrologists who monitor the Rhône's water level, etc. Integrated risk management also entails a redefinition of roles: our firefighters are trained to put out fires, but they also have to be ready to evacuate villagers during floods.

The Canton of Valais does not take such measures alone.
Indeed. Building protective structures is not enough. You also have to do follow-up work to adapt them, should the need arise, to changing circumstances. Disaster risks must be studied taking climate change into account. To this end, the Canton of Valais works closely with the Federal Office for the Environment, private agencies and MeteoSwiss. Many of these stakeholders will take part in the OSCE delegates' field visit on 21 May. And then there is the FDFA, which through the SDC and its Chairmanship of the OSCE is in charge of maintaining relations at the international level.

Now that you bring it up, can you tell us about missions undertaken abroad by the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit? Can the Swiss disaster prevention "recipe" be easily exported?
Abroad I do exactly the same as in Switzerland, though obviously within the means available. The SHA is organised according to a militia corps principle. Its members are constantly perfecting their skills on a day-to-day basis. This morning, I was standing in the mud by the Merdenson River; torrential rain had caused several mudslides... The next day I might well find myself talking with shepherds in Tajikistan who are also confronted with mudslides and who rely on their own intuition to cope with such hazards. Aware that at any moment they might be cut off from the world, they stock up on food to prepare for the worst, but they don't have the means to build dams. That's where we come in. We also bring in our vision of long-term sustainability: a structure is worth building if you can make sure that it'll be standing years from now. It all comes down to a cost/benefit trade-off. In Switzerland, we've also learned from mistakes that were made in the past. Some protective works that were built in the past would not be built today. We can share that experience with others.