By Dizery Salim
Geneva, 20 January 2012 – Speaking at France’s first-ever conference on hazards, the UN disaster risk reduction chief, Margareta Wahlström, yesterday commended the French government for its efforts to implement disaster risk reduction nationally, saying that the country could be a model for others in Europe.
Speaking in Bordeaux, at the National Conference on Natural Hazards – Assises Nationales des Risques Naturels – Ms. Wahlström highlighted France’s active role in the European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction, at a time when Europe accounts for 14.3% of global economic losses due to disasters.
Two years ago, France was badly hit by tropical cyclone Xynthia, incurring $4.2 billion in damage as the storm whipped through western Europe in late February and early March 2010. About 50 people were killed and nearly 900,000 people were left without electricity.
“Afterwards, the country did a remarkable job of mainstreaming the lessons learnt from Xynthia into national plans for disaster management and plans for infrastructure and for flood protection,” said Ms. Wahlström, who heads the Geneva-based UN office for disaster risk reduction, UNISDR. “I am particularly encouraged to see the proactive engagement by some mayors and parliamentarians to mobilize political action in support of disaster risk reduction at the local level.”
Already, 7,700 municipalities in hazard prone areas have developed local plans for disaster prevention, with 4,000 more municipalities about to do the same. France has also strengthened its urban planning codes, which incorporate disaster prevention and risk reduction as key elements.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France’s Minister for Environment, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing, told delegates that “France is rather good” at managing natural hazards, and a new attitude towards planning along the coast after Xynthia had led to “a number of constructions bans, changes in planning rules.
“But state policy would only be effective if the country adopts a culture of risk prevention,” warned the minister.
She cautioned against added risks posed by new technology, which she said could cause a “domino effect” when combined with commonly occurring natural hazards, such as floods, earthquakes, avalanches and landslides.
“In this context, I would like to stress the importance of continuing to improve the way data losses are recorded and accounted for, including small scale and localized disasters. Sound data are critical in order to take decisions concerning development planning and investments,” said Ms. Wahlström.
The UN disaster reduction chief also stressed the importance of bringing together a wide range of diverse stakeholders involved in disaster risk reduction, given that only 15% of investments in disaster risk reduction comes from the public sector. The rest must come from elsewhere.
“The conference is a unique opportunity to discuss how public-private partnerships can better address disaster risk,” Ms. Wahlström said, noting that private French companies have started to develop business continuity plan for mitigating the economic risks of business disruption in case of disasters.
Minister Kosciusko-Morizet said France was about to create a hazard monitoring system, and would soon install new seismic safety regulations and increase spending on risk management in mountain regions. Existing action programmes for flood and fire prevention are also being improved.