Damage and loss from flash floods, landslides and avalanches have increased in recent decades, and experts predict a further increase in intensity, frequency and impact. The EU-funded CHANGES project has developed modelling tools that can help governments to at least ensure such events are less catastrophic. Some of the tools are already being used.
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Its hard to ignore a river flooding, flash flood, or mudslide. These and other hazards, such as severe thunderstorms, heatwaves and cold snaps, are known as hydro-meteorological hazards. When the world started to experience more of them, communities and governments had to react in the face of disaster. Some foresight would however have made this task easier. Increasingly, more governments are recognising the need to take preventative measures to reduce injury, death and damage to property, says CHANGES project coordinator Cees van Westen.
Following the publication of the UNs International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the EU invested in projects like CHANGES to better understand how global environmental and climate change will affect hazards and risks in Europe. The project brought together a multidisciplinary team of researchers to identify and mitigate the risks of these disasters through modelling, risk management, urban (spatial) planning and emergency preparation and communication.
The project followed on from MOUNTAIN-RISKS, a previous project that researched natural disasters triggered by extreme rainfall. That project looked at how tools are used to model the changes, and illustrated the importance of involving more stakeholders in risk mitigation and management, explains van Westen.
By engaging stakeholders across countries and bringing together a network of researchers, the CHANGES project has helped to place Europes academics as thought leaders for hydro-meteorological risks and hazards. Europes academics in this field are sought-after advisers to governments in developed and developing countries, says van Westen.
But the CHANGES project a Marie Curie Initial Training Network also offered a leg up to those just starting out on their careers. The project offered training to young individuals mostly in the starter phase of their research leading up to PhDs. These included 18 early stage researchers. Most of these researchers have obtained their PhDs by now. The training network enabled us to bring together a multi-disciplinary team that would not have otherwise had the opportunity to work together, he says.
Does it take a disaster to change an approach?
The CHANGES project conducted an extensive survey across Italy, France, Romania and Poland, interviewing emergency responders (civil protection units, fire brigades and the Red Cross), planning organisations (governments and some private consultancies), and local authorities (water boards). The interviews led to better understanding of how stakeholders interact with the information they receive about risk and risk mitigation, and their awareness of risk and the regulations they need to consider.
Not surprisingly, the team found that stakeholders tend to pay more attention to the risks once they have experienced a natural disaster themselves. For example, a study area in North East Italy was hit by flooding and debris flows from mountains. This turning point led to greater investment in protection works rather than extensive planning alone.
The study also revealed differences in urban planning approaches between countries. For example, in a fairly poor area in Romania we found that authorities took a response-oriented approach. Whereas in France, spatial planning and risk assessment were well organised, with a high emphasis on communicating with local communities, he reports.
How does climate change affect infrastructure and land use?
The CHANGES researchers made advances in modelling how climate changes would affect extreme events in mountainous environments, and how land could be used in the future. For example, such modelling could help municipalities avoid building homes on land that is likely to be flooded or destroyed by falling/sliding debris.
Our modelling tool would help them develop, consider and assess alternative land uses in terms of lowest to highest risk under different conditions and scenarios. Urban planners can take a decision to reduce risk now but also to reduce risk in the future, he explains. Local planners can also use this information without being experts themselves.
During the project, the researchers developed and tested prototypes of spatial tools and decision support tools that have since been implemented in commercial organisations. For example, in Germany the private sector has used these tools for urban fluvial flooding and risk governance.
The decision support tool has also been used for a World Bank project. Wed like to further develop this tool so that it is accessible and maintained on an ongoing basis for more stakeholders across the globe, says van Westen.