Risk awareness: «People who buy sandbags should not be branded as over-cautious»

Social scientist Matthias Buchecker explains in an interview how we perceive natural hazards in our day-to-day lives, why we underestimate certain risks and why people in Switzerland need to take more responsibility for their own protection.

  Interviewer: Nicolas Gattlen

Matthias Buchecker
Matthias Buchecker is a scientist working at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). His research focuses on the social science of landscape development, the landscaping of lakes and rivers, and natural hazards. Together with Elisabeth Maidl and Benjamin Wiederkehr, Matthias Buchecker conducted the national population survey on living with natural hazards.
© Heike Grasser | Ex-Press | BAFU

People who live in Switzerland are exposed to a range of natural hazards. A survey that you conducted shows that people’s subjective assessments do not match the actual risk. Is this due to a lack of knowledge?

Matthias Buchecker: In recent years, research has moved away from assuming that people have too little knowledge or awareness. This suggests they are not aware of the risks or are unable to identify them. Of course, there are differences in awareness levels, but a more important aspect is the difference in values. What we researchers see as
a risk, others may see as only one aspect of an option. Spending the holidays in a chalet in the red hazard zone, for instance, may be risky, but it also offers a chance to experience the great outdoors. Therefore it is always about weighing up opportunities and risks.

Risks are difficult for laypeople to assess. How can they weigh them up objectively?

It is indeed difficult, partly because there is no shared understanding of the concept of risk. For us scientists, risk means the probability of quantifi­able damage. The general public associates risk with responsibility, so they assess risks differ­ently – mainly in terms of manageability, familiarity and long-term consequences. For instance, nuclear energy is seen as much more risky than smoking, even though a very rare nuclear disaster causes fewer fatalities and less damage than smoking causes around the world each year.

According to this argument, the avalanche risk is likely to be underestimated as well, since Switzerland has a long tradition of managing this type of risk – unlike severe earthquakes, for example, which are rare here and with which the Swiss are not familiar.

Avalanches are a hazard that we believe we have largely under control. They are perceived as a risk only when they affect our livelihoods. For instance, if a valley has to be closed because of avalanches, it could deter tourists. It is more difficult to ascertain the long-term consequences of earthquakes. We tend to think of one-off damage that can be repaired. Moreover, severe earthquakes are so rare in Switzerland that it is difficult for people to grasp the risk.

When I read that the probability of a major earthquake happening in my region next year is 1 percent, it does not keep me awake at night.

But if you extrapolate that for your lifetime, it gives a very different picture. Then, the probability of you experiencing a major earthquake rises to between 40 and 60 percent. That should give you pause for thought!

Nevertheless, the risk remains abstract because I have never experienced a severe or even medium earthquake, and none of my family or friends have suffered because of one. How important is personal experience? And what is the impact of media coverage?

Sensational media reports in particular have little impact on risk awareness. Instead, they tend to prompt a fascination with the natural disaster and encourage a belief that it can not affect us: it is something that happens to “other unfortunate ­people”. However, someone who experiences it for themselves develops a stronger awareness of the hazard and is more prepared to take precautions. And it is not just personal experience that has an impact – experience within the community is also effective, especially in rural areas with high levels of social integration. People also remember extreme events for longer in these places. Events can sometimes remain in the collective memory for decades, whereas personal recollection does not usually stretch back more than 15 years.

At the same time, however, we know that even people who have had dramatic experiences often rebuild their homes in the same place.

A person’s home is closely linked to their identity: people want to feel safe and in command. There is no place for hazards. There is also a lot of prestige and social status attached to a home. People do not like to admit that they have to bow to nature.

So a high risk awareness does not necessarily lead to logical action?

No. That is something we see with gambling too. Every gambler knows that the probability of losing is very high – but they still gamble. If other values are more important, probabilities become less relevant.

It is interesting that in your survey a large majority say they would rather invest in safety than suffer losses as a result of natural hazards. They are also aware of their personal responsibility to do something about their own protection. But at the same time, they are astonishingly passive. How do you explain this discrepancy?

One reason is that people trust the protective measures implemented by the authorities and emergency services. And good insurance cover also discourages many people from doing something about their own protection. Moreover, a majority of them are convinced that the cost outweighs the benefit. Without a doubt though, people’s lack of knowledge and their perception that their own efforts will not have much impact contribute to their passive approach.

What is the most effective way to communicate the necessary knowledge?

It is vital that the community understands and discusses the relevance of preventive measures for natural hazards as an issue that affects everyone. Someone who buys sandbags should not have to worry about being branded as over-cautious. Taking precautions should be seen as setting an example. Hazard maps would be a good basis for discussion. Exhibitions, competitions and guided tours to see traces of past incidents can also strengthen a community’s awareness of natural hazards and encourage people to take preventive action.

Protection against natural hazards is seen as particularly relevant in places where an incident has recently occurred. In places where nothing has happened for a long time, if at all, people see protection as less important compared with other concerns and interests. How is it possible to get local communities talking about natural hazard protection despite this?

By linking the issue with the community’s main concerns. This could be, for example, tourism in the region, or the future management of local resources such as water, land or forests. These kinds of integrated approaches are particularly important with regard to climate change, which will require comprehensive and expensive protective measures.

A reminder for those with short memories

Although floods sometimes cause major damage and have a serious impact on those directly affected by them, they are quickly forgotten and usually disappear from the collective memory in just a few years. The Mobiliar Lab for Natural Risks at Bern University has therefore set up a website (ueberschwemmungsgedaechtnis.ch) as a “collective aide-memoire”. The website puts pictures (engravings, watercolours, etc.) and photos of floods from all over Switzerland in the public domain. Users can search by location and by time period.

The oldest picture currently available dates back to 1572. The website operators are calling on the population to upload their own photos of flooding to the website and to keep adding to the collection. The “collective flood memory” is intended to raise awareness of the threat of flooding. It can also provide the basis for decision-making in flood prevention and alert people to possible protective measures. Pictures are a vivid way of demonstrating the impacts of flooding. Natural disasters (floods, landslides, rockfalls and avalanches) are also being collected by the StorMe database.

This is aimed primarily at experts, but the general public can also report incidents. A number of Swiss cantons provide public access to the StorMe register of natural disasters, e.g. via their geoportals.

Further information

Last modification 03.06.2020

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