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Interview: Preventing disasters, a key concern for Switzerland

Source(s):  Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (SDC )

Earthquakes in Haiti, floods in Pakistan – the effects of natural disasters are especially devastating in developing countries. On 13 October 2010, the International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, the United Nations invites people around the world to reflect on the importance of disaster prevention and reduction. Switzerland is active in both areas.

The following is an interview with Markus Zimmermann, author of an evaluation of the results of Switzerland’s DRR activities that will be published in 2011. Zimmermann holds a doctorate in geomorphology from the University of Bern and has more than 25 years’ experience in disaster risk reduction projects in Switzerland and abroad. In addition, he has taught geomorphology and management of natural risks for more than 20 years and regularly publishes articles on this subject. He has worked closely with the SDC as an independent consultant for the last 18 years.

What could a DRR programme have achieved in anticipation of the disastrous flooding in Pakistan?

The extent of the disaster in Pakistan is extreme. Much of the damage could not have been prevented even if the necessary protection measures had been in place beforehand. In many disasters in other regions, however, damage could have been minimised and the losses of those affected could have been reduced. With in-depth training and good equipment, the state and the affected provinces could have been better prepared, although I hasten to add here that in an emergency situation like Pakistan today, Switzerland would probably have been overwhelmed.

A good example of a DRR intervention that helped minimise damage when a disaster struck can be seen in the school buildings that Switzerland erected in the framework of various SDC projects in Haiti, which remained intact when the earthquake hit last January.

What influence do natural disasters have on the development of a country?


Natural disasters can cause widespread economic damage. The annual cost world-wide is estimated at about 200 billion Swiss francs. Of this, approximately 80% affects industrial countries and 20% or even less developing countries. The big difference, however, is that in developing countries the costs of natural disasters can amount to almost 100% of gross domestic product (BIP). This was the case in Honduras, which has a GDP of USD 5 billion, where the damage caused by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 was estimated at USD 4 billion. In the industrialised countries, in contrast, the costs of reconstruction following natural disasters are between only 1% and 5%. In Japan, for example, the cost of the devastating earthquake in Kobe in January 1995 was just under 4% of Japanese GDP. In developing countries the massive economic damage caused by natural disasters therefore frequently results in money being used for emergency relief measures and reconstruction that would otherwise be used for the country’s long-term and sustainable development. Natural disasters clearly have a very negative impact on efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In spite of these problems, however, natural disasters do have some positive sides. Often they lead to a boost in innovation and investment, in particular in buildings and infrastructure, villages and cities that are rebuilt to much higher building standards. For example, the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 set off a real boom in reconstruction which resulted in significantly higher building standards than was previously the case in many areas, though not all.

Where does Switzerland have particular DRR know-how?


Natural hazards have always been part of life in Switzerland. We have a long tradition of living with them. In the case of hazards associated with the mountain regions, such as avalanches, landslides or floods, we are very strong in preventive measures, such as stream and river retention and afforestation, as well as in precautionary measures including insurance. In addition, the cantonal and municipal authorities have considerable experience in managing crises and disasters, as well as in risk assessment and supervision. However, we are not so strong in the areas of awareness raising and people participation. We can apply our broad know-how and experience in the framework of DRR projects, which Switzerland supports.

You are currently working on an evaluation of the results of Switzerland’s activities in the field of DRR. What is your assessment?

The SDC has been active in DRR programmes for many years and disburses roughly 10 million per year for this purpose. The results in four areas are as follows:

In the area of capacity building (transfer of expertise), Switzerland has been able to achieve a lot in search and rescue training, crisis management, and cartography for indicating danger and high-risk zones. In these areas of activity we have been successful in transferring knowledge and skills to countries and in equipping relevant entities. Our support for planning processes in municipal authorities is especially effective in developing risk awareness and preventing or at least impeding the growth of further risks.

The results of our activities in the areas of awareness raising and political dialogue are not clearly measurable because the desired behavioural changes only become apparent in the long term. However, we have for example implemented projects in which, together with the country concerned, we have developed a national strategy on risk reduction.

The fourth area, direct risk reduction, is very easily measurable and one where we have achieved much. Specific results include the construction of shelters for villagers in Bangladesh in the event of cyclones, and improved protection against tsunamis through alarm systems or projects in directly exposed areas where the effects of flooding can be minimised through afforestation and protection walls.

What fascinates you about DRR?


What I find fascinating about DRR is the relationship between human beings and nature and the influence they have on each other. It is a subject that affects many people – not only those in developing countries.

Through DRR, it is possible to make concrete improvements to improving the daily lives of people, to protecting the foundations of their livelihoods and property, and especially make human life safer.

It always impresses me to see how nature shows humans how difficult it is to understand. For instance, no one could have predicted the vast extent of the flooding in Pakistan. Clearly, DRR will always remain a challenge.



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  • Publication date 13 Oct 2010

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