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Natural disasters

Lothar, the first of two severe storms that passed over Western Europe on 26–27 December 1999, caused severe damage. This image shows the storm passing over Europe at 12.00 UTC on 26 December, with the northern African coast outlined below

Source: copyright EUMETSAT 2002

In Europe, the most common natural disasters are storms and floods, although earthquakes do occur in some countries. Storms and floods are also the most costly in terms of economic and insured losses. The windstorms Lothar and Martin that occurred in December 1999 caused an estimated €5 billion damage to crops, forests and infrastructure while the cost of flood damage between 1991 and 1995 has been estimated at €99 billion. One of the worst years ever in terms of flood damage was 2000, accounting for almost one-quarter of the total US$10.6 billion insured costs (Swiss Re 2001). In recent years, many European countries have experienced abnormally high precipitation intensity and duration, especially in winter months, which has led to floods in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Between 1971 and 1996, 163 major floods occurred in Europe. The main factors that induce or intensify floods and their impacts include climate change, land sealing, changes in the catchment and floodplain land use, population growth, urbanization and increasing settlement, roads and railways and sometimes hydraulic engineering measures (EEA 2001a).Forest fires and droughts are a problem in the southern countries along the rim of the Mediterranean (Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia and Spain) and fires are also common in the Siberian region of the Russian Federation where economic recession has caused a severe decline in the response capacity of local authorities and forest fire teams. Each year, hundreds of thousand of hectares of taiga forest are lost due to fires. Around 80 per cent of forest fires are a result of people’s ignorance of fire safety rules.

The average annual number of natural disasters appears to be increasing and since the late 1980s there has also been an increase in the impacts of these disasters and their related economic losses — at least in the European Union (EEA 1999). For example, at the French–German border, the floodwaters of the Rhine rose more than 7m above flood level about once every 20 years between 1900 and 1977. Since 1977, that level has been reached on average once every other year (UWIN 1996). Actions and measures are taken at both national and regional level to reduce the impacts of natural disasters (see box), though there is no targeted policy. Integrated land-use planning can, to some extent, prevent impacts on humans. Emergency response plans have been produced throughout the European Union to react to various natural disasters, but these appear to be ad hoc, generally not tested, and are considered unlikely to work well in practice (EEA 1999).

The Rhine Action Plan on Flood Defence

In January 1998, the 12th Conference of Rhine Ministers adopted an Action Plan on Flood Defence to be implemented over 20 years. The most important aims of the plan are to reduce damage by up to 10 per cent by the year 2005 and by up to 25 per cent by 2020. Extreme flood levels downstream of the regulated Upper Rhine are to be reduced by up to 30 cm by 2005 and by up to 70 cm by 2020. These ambitious targets are likely to be reached only through an integrated managerial approach at local, national, regional and international levels.

Over the past two centuries, the Rhine has lost more than 85 per cent of its natural floodplains to buildings and agriculture. There were severe floods in 1993 and 1995. The assets that could be affected in areas at flood risk may amount to €1 500 billion. Countermeasures, such as the preservation and expansion of floodplains, and improved water storage in the entire catchment area, must aim at the ecological improvement of the Rhine, its valley and catchment area.

Source: ICPR 2001