International cooperation: Drawing on Switzerland’s Experience throughout the World

Switzerland’s expertise in dealing with natural hazards is valued throughout the world. It ranges from emergency aid to disaster preparedness and, as a result, is availed of in many countries and by many organisations like the UN and OSCE.

Bosnia and Herzegovina after the devastating storm of 2014
Bosnia and Herzegovina after the devastating storm of 2014: Large areas in the north-east near Bjieljina were under water
© Hugo Raetzo, SHA

Text: Viera Malach

Hugo Raetzo completed his latest foreign deployment in the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA). That was in mid-May 2014. The worst floods for 120 years had inundated one third of the country. Large areas of neighbouring Serbia were also under water. Almost one million people had to leave their homes, temporarily at least, and 60 people lost their lives. Numerous countries sent aid workers. Switzerland was represented on ground by two SHA operations teams and army helicopters.

Hugo Raetzo works in the FOEN’s Landslides, Avalanches and Protection Forest Section. “Although water experts were primarily in demand in Bosnia and Herzegovina to deal with drinking-water issues, there was a risk of landslides, rockfall and debris flows in several hundred locations which, as an expert for geological hazards, I had to assess,” he reports. “For example, we were able to give the all clear in a completely cut-off mountain village as the location was stable. It was extremely important that independent experts evaluated the hazards,” he adds.

Former opponents in war join forces for disaster risk reduction

As Hugo Raetzo explains the retrospective analysis of the disaster revealed that to be better prepared for future flood events the two Balkan countries need better measurement networks, early-warning systems and emergency organisations: “In the case of the flood hazard in the main valleys, it would be possible to warn the population in good time based on our hydrological forecast model. The local intervention forces could then guarantee the necessary protection and, if necessary, organise evacuations.” Cross-border disaster risk reduction now offers the former opponents in war, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the opportunity to improve the management of their shared rivers the Sava and Drina.

Both states received support for disaster risk reduction and reconstruction from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), neighbouring countries and Switzerland. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) temporarily shifted the focus of their long term eastern cooperation programmes to reconstruction and planned projects are now being supplemented with measures for disaster risk reduction.

Risk reduction on the OSCE agenda

During its Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2014, Switzerland had identified disaster risk reduction and natural hazard management as focal issues. For example, a meeting for the preparation of the OSCE Economic and Environmental Forum dealt specifically with these topics. Based on two field visits in the canton of Valais, the FOEN, SDC and local authorities demonstrated to the conference participants from 57 states what kind of joint preventive measures against floods, avalanches and debris flows are possible, and what kind of residual risks remain.

Switzerland has made a name for itself in the international arena as a mountainous country with a long tradition in the management of natural hazards which is willing to provide efficient help and support. “Because risk reduction is on the agenda of a security organisation like the OSCE, Switzerland continues to offer its expertise,” explains Adrienne Schnyder, OSCE Programme Officer, SDC/Humanitarian Aid. The OSCE is focusing on the topic of water this year under the Chairmanship of Serbia. Better flood management is an aspect of this topic.

Risk management in development cooperation

Because extreme weather events put the progress made in combating poverty at risk in some locations, the SDC upgraded disaster risk reduction to a key issue. The FOEN and SDC cooperate closely with the aim of strengthening the resilience of the local population and establishing a risk management system based on the Swiss model and tailored to local conditions.

“Thanks to the expert interaction between the FOEN and SDC, Switzerland’s experience can be incorporated into the projects in developing countries,” says Carolin Schärpf, who coordinates the cooperation between the two agencies as a staff member of the FOEN Hazard Prevention division. The paradigm shift – from pure hazard prevention to integrated risk management – that has taken place in Switzerland in recent years is also reflected in the country’s international cooperation activities.

A neutral expert in Thailand

Swiss aid is valued throughout the world because it places the civil population at the centre of attention and because its experts act independently and impartially. The SHA’s aid and, hence also the FOEN’s expert knowledge, is constantly in demand in this context.

For example, Thailand called on the SHA’s experts for help during the horrendous floods of November 2011. Following an extraordinarily long monsoon, the Chao Phraya river had breached its banks and 400 people were killed. Approximately 160,000 square kilometres of land were flooded, an area four times the size of Switzerland. The loss of production in the major industrial complexes of the Ayutthaya province, which were flooded for weeks, had impacts on the global economy.

Urs Nigg from the FOEN’s Flood Prevention Section was also part of the SHA team. “The SHA had to provide a neutral assessment for the domestic political debate as to whether the support staff had made errors in the emergency operations,” he reports. This was a difficult time in the country, which was already torn by deep political divisions. The SHA team also had to identify feasible preparedness measures. Industrial plants like those in the province of Ayutthaya cannot simply be moved to the mountains. “Nonetheless, it is possible to reduce damage considerably with the help of careful property protection measures and the transfer of sensitive objects to more elevated locations,” says Urs Nigg. It has yet to emerge which elements of his analysis, the proposed protective measures and spatial planning regulations will be implemented.

PLANAT throughout Europe

Since 1997, the expertise gained in the area of integrated risk management in Switzerland has been pooled and constantly improved by the National Platform for Natural Hazards (PLANAT). “As an extra-parliamentary consultative commission appointed by the Federal Council, PLANAT is the oldest platform of this type in Europe,” explains Wanda Wicki, who was Director of the PLANAT secretariat until the end of 2014. Since 2011 an annual exchange has been taking place between the 18 platforms which now exist in Europe. “Not all countries have sufficient capacity for risk management. However, their capacity can be strengthened through active networks.”

Hence, Kosovo approached PLANAT two years ago requesting expert support for the government in Pristina for the development of a national strategy for dealing with natural hazards. This resulted in “exciting strategic cooperation,” reports Wanda Wicki. She pleads for the establishment of as many platforms as possible like PLANAT. “The participatory approach is a priority for us.” An overarching and networked strategy can only be achieved with the involvement of all responsible actors.

“Because the economic losses arising from natural disasters are very high, the countries at risk from such hazards need corresponding support,” adds Markus Zimmermann, who represents the SDC in PLANAT and has specialised in hazard prevention since the early 1990s as a member of the SHA. Comprehensive knowledge of the risks is crucial he stresses. Public and private investors should avoid the creation of new risks through appropriate planning, and reduce existing risks through clear prioritisation. In addition, governments must create a favourable environment for disaster risk reduction. These points were highlighted by the Swiss working group for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction which took place in Japan in spring 2015 (see box). The SDC, FOEN, PLANAT, Federal Office for Civil Protection (FOCP) and a network non-governmental organisations, which deal with disaster risk reduction, were represented in the working group.

World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction

Natural disasters affect rich and poor countries alike and cause huge human and economic losses. For this reason, the topic of disaster risk reduction (DRR) is very high on the international agenda. This was also demonstrated by the Third UN World Conference on DRR from 14 to 18 March 2015, at which delegates from 187 states, non-governmental organisations, science and the private sector adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030.

Switzerland played a key role in the preparation of the conference. This was also the case for the Second World Conference in 2005 in Kobe Japan where the “Hyogo Framework for Action: 2005–2015” was adopted. In keeping with the aim of promoting the link between humanitarian aid, risk-conscious sustainable development and climate change, Switzerland also advocated for the strengthening of an integrated DRR approach in the formulation of the new framework document at the 2015 conference.

Further information

Last modification 20.05.2015

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