Local authorities confronting natural disasters and emergencies - CPL (8) 6 Part II

Rapporteurs :
Mrs BORDRON (France) and
Mr WHITTAKER (United Kingdom)



Disasters and emergencies, since time immemorial, are part of life. Historically considered as Acts of God, with a high degree of fatalism, they are nowadays a subject of inquiries, apportionment of blame, demands for compensation and increasingly, the subject of prevention measures either to avert or minimise risk; emergency planning; the establishment of specialised agencies; and the enactment of appropriate legislation.

Climate change has increased the risk of floods, storm damage, fire and drought. Increased dependence on technology, denser transport infrastructure, industrial installations which now occasionally juxtapose residential areas, also means increased risk.

To give an example of just one country, France.

According to the French Ministry of the Environment, over 17 000 of the 36 000 municipalities in France (ie more than half of them, primarily in rural areas) are under threat from one or more natural risks. 2000 of these municipalities are classified as “priority risk areas”.

According to these statistics, 9 400 municipalities are threatened by flooding, 6 000 by earthquakes, 4 500 by landslides and 600 by avalanches.

Between 1982 and 1996, 30 000 municipalities were declared natural disaster zones on at least one occasion, 10 200 at least three times and 75 more than nine times.

The Bourrelier Report (Ref. A) estimates the total cost of conventional natural hazards at €1 200 million per annum, including €750 million in compensation and damages, €125 million in prevention efforts and €150 million in rescue operations.


The Committee of Sustainable Development of the Chamber of Local Authorities of the CLRAE decided to prepare a draft Resolution on this subject, at its meeting in Autumn on 2001 and to present it to the Spring Mini-Session of the Chamber in March 2002.

It appointed as Rapporteurs, Mrs Bordron (France) and Mr Whittaker (United Kingdom) as Rapporteurs, to be assisted by Mr Paour as Consultant and with the support of the Secretariat of the Chamber.

The Rapporteurs also had assistance from the organisation "Local Authorities Confronting Disasters and Emergencies" (LACDE) which has observer status with the Chamber. It's representatives, Mrs Castenfors and Mrs Szucs, have attended meetings of the Rapporteurs.

Given the shortage of time available to prepare the Resolution and its accompanying Explanatory Memorandum, the Rapporteurs were conscious that they could only indicate a few pointers as a basis for the CLRAE's future work on the subject.

Furthermore, many of the examples contained in the Explanatory Memorandum come from very few countries and, particularly, from France.

The Rapporteurs feel that future work should include the preparation of a Manual on good practice (see paragraph 38 of the draft Resolution) with contributions from a maximum number of member countries.


Disasters and emergencies can be defined in various ways. A number of attempts have been made. Some examples:-

In 1947 the Santander Conference defined the following risks as “catastrophic”: “risks caused by an extraordinary factor connected with natural events or human conflict, affecting individuals or things and possessing absolutely exceptional economic scope and level in their immediate or indirect effects, with no foreseeable regularity of occurrence and following no statistical pattern as per the contemporary scientific conception”.

We might supplement this definition with that proposed by Professor Emil Frey, Mannheim (Experiodica 1965/15): “A disaster is when a whole series of separate injuries is caused by one single event, a number of events which are interconnected temporally or otherwise, or a development attributable to a specified cause, where the event or development is of a sporadic nature and has economic consequences so variable that they are impossible to estimate in advance, the only certainty being that they can be extremely extensive”.

To contemporary experts (Ref. B) "the French word for disaster, “catastrophe”, from the Greek word for an “overturning”, designates a sudden terrible event which affects a person or a community. This academic definition calls for comment.

Floods, storms, hurricanes, cyclones, tidal waves, avalanches, mudflows, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc: there are many natural catastrophes or disasters which affected our distant ancestors and which we are still suffering today. While the causes are natural (or are they?), the consequences largely depend on social choices. The other type of disaster, the so-called technological disaster, clearly depends on human factors in terms of both causes and effects (industrial accidents, large-scale road, rail, sea or air accidents, air, water and soil pollution, and contaminations or epidemics of technical or technological origin, etc).

However, society, which has become highly complex thanks to human progress, leading to a largely incomprehensible and unpredictable type of organisation, can no longer be considered solely as a rational model. This means that the subtle distinction between natural and technological disasters is liable to be even further blurred in future.

In some cases, the suddenness attributed to disasters corresponds to a macroscopic phenomenological vision. Where natural events are concerned, it is true that they are often sparked off in a sudden manner, but this immediate trigger is the consequence of earlier, accumulated and correlated phenomena (pluviometry, snow gauging, plate tectonics, etc). The consequences themselves can continue to make themselves felt for some time, for example with flooding, depending on the surrounding geographical, geological, human and other conditions. For instance, the word “disaster” is often applied to the sudden consequences, whereas in fact in some conditions it is the cause that becomes fatal over time (deforestation, building work, etc).

Nor are technical and technological disasters necessarily as sudden the collapse of the Furiani stadium in Corsica; the Mont Saint-Odile plane crash in Alsace or the accident in the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Whether of natural or technical origin, disasters are tragedies in several acts, generally involving several protagonists, although they do not necessarily respect the unity of time or place. Therefore, we should stop regarding disasters as external phenomena and see them rather as problems in which human beings are and must be involved in terms not only of the causes but also of the consequences." (Ref B)

However, whether disasters and emergencies be manmade or natural, the responses of local authorities and bodies called upon to prevent or deal with them are virtually identical. No distinction is thus made in the draft Resolution.

Neither has any attempt been made to assess the impact of or responses to terrorist acts, particularly as this question will be examined by the Chamber of Local Authorities, initially, at a major Conference to be organised in Luxembourg, September 2002.


Natural disasters can be classified as follows.

- phenomena of an endemic nature, originating in a disease (epidemic, epizootic, epiphytic, invasions of harmful insects, effects of cosmic radiation, etc) affecting human beings, animals or plants
- phenomena of a meteorological nature, originating in an atmospheric phenomenon (storms, hailstones, frost, drought, snow, alluvia, hurricanes, cyclones, etc)
- phenomena connected with the morphology of the area or terrain, originating in a geological phenomenon (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, etc);

a. Flooding

Floods are responsible for 20 000 deaths worldwide every year, and are by far the most common global hazard, accounting for 50% of all natural disasters.

In France, 9 400 municipalities or 2 000 000 citizens are affected by this risk, while the annual average cost of flood damage totals €250 000 000.

A simulation exercise carried out in 1994 in the Ile-de-France region showed that exceptional rises in the level of the Seine and the Marne, as happened in 1910, would flood 200 000 inhabitants and cause more than €10 000 million worth of direct and indirect damage.

In mountain areas, heavy rain can generate supercritical flows carrying solid materials along in their wake (Grand-Bornand camp site (Haute-Savoie - 1987 - 23 victims).

On 10 November 2001 the Algerian city of Algiers was hit by a cataclysm, particularly affecting the Bab-el-Oued district situated at the foot of a range of hills: pedestrians, cars, lorries, buses etc were carried along for several kilometres by torrential mudflows, smashed against house walls and swept towards the sea. And yet three days previously the weather service had forwarded a pessimistic forecast to the Prime Minister’s offices: the former Mazaran riverbed, which was transformed into a motorway some thirty years ago, was likely to collect excess water and mud flows and channel them into areas of the city.

The traditional causes of flooding

Heavy rainfall 

Towards the end of 2001 Brittany received 80% of its average annual rainfall in only four months! This was unprecedented in 50 years of record-keeping. Moreover, whenever high tides and violent winds join forces with heavy rainfall, the resultant waves can prevent water from coastal watercourses draining off into the sea.

In inland areas, there have been examples in the United Kingdom, in recent years, particularly in the Severn Valley and Yorkshire, and in France in the Somme basin, where the soil has been waterlogged as a result of constant rain over a period of weeks, with the land incapable of absorbing any additional rainfall.

Reallocation of land 

When farming techniques evolved and small plots of land previously surrounded by living hedgerows were regrouped in order to secure large areas accessible to heavy agricultural plant, thousands of kilometres of embankments and sunken laneways which had previously blocked excess water flows disappeared. Furthermore, replacing grass with maize in cattle fodder has not helped matters: once the crops are brought in the fields are left exposed for much of the winter, and the absence of covering vegetation allows the water to flow off into the valley bottoms, whose absorbent function is being destroyed by systematic drainage of grass and wetlands.


The ill-considered construction of shopping centres, housing and industrial estates entails the ubiquitous use of tarmac and concrete: the soils thus covered can no longer act as a sponge, thus further increasing surface water flow.

Spatial development

Straightening out watercourses, building dams and developing navigable channels round off the list of the main causes of flooding.

b. Storms

The storm in the winter of 1999-2000 (when the hurricanes Lothar and Martin swept across France) not only caused extensive damage (140 000 000 m3 of timber destroyed, to a value of €150 000 000, only half of which was insured), but also prompted a radical new awareness on the part of both the authorities and the general public.

The “Storm Task Force” set up at the time has pointed to a number of shortcomings and dysfunctions, and although these only emerged in extreme conditions, some experts think that these conditions could recur.

c. Earthquakes

5 500 French municipalities face seismic risks (Antilles and south-east Metropolitan France), aggravated by the urban expansion in the post-war period, when 95% of new buildings went up without any provision for earthquake-proofing.

The specific features of the earthquake risk as presented at the recent Montpellier Encounters organised by the Council of Europe:

"They are quasi-instantaneous events; everything is over in a few seconds;

They can be devastating; for instance, one earthquake is believed to have caused nearly one million victims in China (2 February 1556, XiAn, Shaanxi province); more recently, the earthquake on 17 August 1999 probably claimed thirty thousand lives in the Izmit region (Turkey). The economic consequences can be enormous even when few human lives are lost.

They have a “return period”, to the extent that this parameter can be accurately defined, which is varies greatly from one region to another but which is usually measured in decades or even centuries; in southern Mexico and the Kuril Islands, for example, many of the most violent earthquakes occur every 10-15 years; in the Chlef (formerly El Asnam, formerly Orléansville) region, in central northern Algeria, highly destructive earthquakes occur every 30-35 years. The concept is still meaningful even if the return period is measured in centuries in regions with low seismic activity (the Nice hinterland or the environs of Basle, for example).

In the present state of scientific knowledge, earthquakes are still impossible to forecast; despite a few alleged “successful forecasts” (famous example of HaiCheng on 4 February 1975, in LiaoNing Province, China) which everyone remembers, and despite the occasional emergence of “new forecasting methods” (the latest one being based on satellite thermographic observations), physical knowledge of seismic sources is still insufficient for any likelihood of a breakthrough in the foreseeable future".

d. Landslides

Landslides are the second major type of hazard, with over 6 000 French municipalities at risk.

Land often subsides above old abandoned quarries. For instance, beneath the town of Laon (Aisne department), which has an exceptional historic heritage, including 375 ha of listed areas and buildings, is a veritable Swiss cheese.

e. Avalanches

600 French municipalities are at risk from avalanches, and 30 people die in such accidents every year. Most of the victims are off-piste skiers and ramblers, who have to be rescued by local security services. However, these “sporting accidents” cannot obscure the fact that there are also avalanches in inhabited areas, despite all the town planning recommendations.

For instance, when 12 persons were buried in an avalanche while they slept in Chamonix in 1999, the mayor was charged with manslaughter, while the older inhabitants had never seen such a thing as a snowslide reaching the bottom of the valley and then continuing up the other side!

f. Drought

Drought can give rise to "land movements, viz instances of differential subsidence caused by the retraction of certain types of clay under the influence of the drought. The resultant damage mainly concerned cracks in buildings standing on this type of soil.

A quick look at the successive estimates of total costs over the years will give some idea of the extent of and damage caused by drought in France:

- 1991 - €230 000 000
- 1993 - €460 000 000
- 1997 - €1 500 000 000
- 1999 - €2 600 000 000.

These figures may well continue to increase. In the United Kingdom, according to an ABI (Association of British Insurers) survey the annual cost of drought damage increased from £50 million in the 1970s to £100 million in the 1980s, peaking at £500 million in 1991 (ie €810 000 000, as compared with €230 000 000 in France the same year)."
(Ref C)

g. Forest fires

Forest fires are more or less confined to the dry seasons when, in many cases arsonists light traditional blazes every summer in the Mediterranean area, and this winter in Australia. Municipalities and local fire services have to cope with these dramatic events.

Every year the French central and local authorities spend €150 000 000 preventing and fighting fires.

However, while 4 000 French municipalities are affected by such forest fires, the many factors involved in propagation of the fire (biomass, drought, wind, etc) make it difficult to draw up zoning plans to delimit these risks in forests.


These can include political risks originating in the following events: strikes, riots, civil disorder, coups d’état, revolutions, insurrections, agitation, civil war, confiscation of property, conscription, economic or financial sanctions, restrictions on borrowing, exports and circulation of currency, etc

For purposes of this draft Resolution, the emergencies are limited to the following.

a. Water Pollution

According to a recently published report in France by the National Evaluation Council of the General Commissariat responsible for the Plan, “underground water in regions where agricultural activity is intensive will, sooner or later, be affected by the slow but sure migration of substances (nitrates and pesticides) which have filtered into the soil and the subsoil. Furthermore, the use of biological pesticides encourages the onset of resistance among the insects which destroy crops, and this will ultimately lead to the propagation of diseases against which it will be difficult to take effective action.

At the same time as these slow-moving, but ultimately disastrous, processes were continuing, four accidents occurred within a three-month period, with appalling consequences for the environment, an accumulation of toxic substances in the food chain; the wiping out of tons of fish, plankton, etc; adverse effects on natural habitats; lasting contamination of soils, sediments and underground water; elimination of self-purification capacity.

- on 12 December 1999 the Erika went down off the coast of Brittany (France): 15 000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil polluted 400 km of coastline, causing severe damage to fauna, flora, fish and to the tourist industry, and also having adverse effects on public health;
- on 29 December 1999, the Volgoneft 248 sank off Istanbul, allowing 1 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil to pour out into the already severely polluted Sea of Marmara;
- on 30 January 2000, in north-western Romania, the Baia Mare dam burst, releasing 100 000 m3 of contaminated waste water containing cyanide into a tributary of the Danube;
- on 10 March 2000, in the same area again, a settling tank containing polluted sludge (lead and zinc) overflowed into the same Danube tributary.

The combination of these two last-named events led to what was described by the European Environment Agency as the worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl.
(Ref D)

b. Air pollution

In addition to the impact of industrial, exhaust and greenhouse emissions, one of the most worrying risks comes from accidents or incidents at nuclear installations.

We have been told that the result of a large passenger aircraft crashing into one of the four pools at the La Hague nuclear reprocessing centre in the Manche department of France would be a disaster equivalent to 67 Chernobyl accidents. For, after Tomsk in Siberia, La Hague is the place where the second largest quantity of nuclear material in the world is concentrated.

One finding which has given rise to controversy is that there have been four times more cases than normal of leukaemia in the area around the La Hague reprocessing centre in the past 20 years.

The total amount of pollution which exists as an result of some 423 open-air nuclear tests conducted since 1950 (193 in the USA, 142 in the USSR, 45 in France, 22 in China and 21 in the United Kingdom) is the equivalent of 500 times that caused by Chernobyl. There is as yet no operational way of reclassifying soil, especially that used for agricultural purposes, although radionuclides remain on its surface for dozens of years.
(Ref E)

c. Technological accidents

Firstly, a reminder of the dates of several major disasters:

- September 1921: explosion at BASF’s Oppau plant (Germany) - 561 killed;
- April 1947: a vessel loaded with ammonium nitrate blew up in Texas City (USA) - 500 killed;
- January 1966: fire at Feyzin refinery (Rhône department of France) - 18 killed, and the fire took a week to put out;
- July 1976: Seveso (Italy);
- November 1984: liquid gas exploded in Mexico - 452 killed;
- December 1984: lethal gas leak at Union Carbide, Bhopal (India) - 7 000 were killed and 100 000 suffered lung/eye damage.

Without giving a full list of all the disasters that could be mentioned here, let us look at the series of recent tunnel accidents:

- March 1999: Mont Blanc tunnel (France);
- May 1999: Tauern (Austria);
- June 1999: Drammen (Norway);
- June 2000: Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany);
- August 2000: Innsbruck (Austria);
- November 2000: Kaprun (Austria);
- October 2001: St Gotthard (Switzerland).

An alarmist report which appeared in 2001, drawn up by none other than the builder, reveals that the Aquitaine suspension bridge (Gironde department of France) is being eaten away by rust and that the slightest lorry accident could also bring it down … on top of the Paris to Irun high-speed railway line. The lorry speed limit has been set at 50 km/h, but action by the CRS police, the installation of electronic warning systems and radar systems, the erection of warning signs and the putting down of rumble strips have not prevented lorries from continuing to cross at 100 km/h. There is even a risk that frost might add to the rust damage and make the structure even more fragile - a bridge across the A7 motorway in the Drôme department was closed last winter, illustrating the hazard created by such damage.

Another source of danger exemplified by events at the end of 2001 is the traditional New Year firework displays which have just seen 250 people burned to death in Peru, 30 deaths in China and 400 people injured in Venezuela. In every case, the cause was careless storage of firecrackers in unauthorised workshops and warehouses.

A case not without similarities occurred in Enschede, Netherlands, a number of years ago, when the explosion of a fireworks factory in the middle of the town, the existence of which being unsuspected by the Mayor and municipal council, causing severe loss of life, a significant number of serious injuries and widespread physical damage.

The Toulouse accident

The tragedy of Toulouse alone serves as a symbol of a classic industrial hazards .

Two unexplained explosions in quick succession on 21 September 2001 flattened the AZF chemical works, blasting everything within a radius of 2 km and causing greater or lesser amounts of damage to the rest of the city and the surrounding residential areas.

Thirty people were killed and 2 500 injured. 27 000 homes were damaged, 600 families had to be rehoused, 400 firms with 7 200 employees were affected, and 80 primary schools, 35 secondary schools and two universities were closed. The municipal council faced a bill of € 500 million, at a time when resources were scarce. Building workers from major projects such as the underground railway, the media library and the Airbus assembly plant were drafted in to make initial repairs.

It seems likely that the cause was not unexplained spontaneous combustion of AZF’s store of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertiliser now classified at a lower level, but regarded as stable, but rather the domino effect of an electric arc leading to an initial explosion at SNPE (an explosives manufacturer).

There was no significant damage to the works of SNPE, which produces the fuel used for Ariane rockets, or to that of its neighbour, Tolochimie, which makes phosgene, a lethal toxic gas. What would have happened if the fire had extended to them?


6. Even though there is legitimate debate about its causes, the extent of global warming and climate change is well known: the world is warming up. National and international conferences (such as those held at Rio and Kyoto) have given much publicity to the question and sought to reduce offending industrial emissions and other greenhouse gases.

The predicted rise in temperature during the 21st Century is two degrees centigrade. This will inevitably increase periods of drought, accompanied by more frequent forest fires and conversely increase the amount of winter precipitation and cause flooding.

Yet there is still insufficient acceptance of climate change when it comes to housing and industrial development and in the coherent management of natural and topographical features.

7. As to the notion of prevention, this is not sufficiently anchored in policy, legislation, regulations and technical action.

Prevention is often in conflict with economic imperatives, employment and land and industrial development.

There is also a diversity of the institutional players and of the policies applied; administrative compartmentation of agencies and lack of consultation have precluded a co-ordinated effort by local authorities in conjunction with the State and its area-based administration for the control of risks. This situation is aggravated by the absence of intermunicipal arrangements for managing natural hazards, and possibly also by an indistinct apportionment of responsibilities between the various tiers of government, which incline to isolated preventive action.

Furthermore, in small municipalities the technical services are extremely limited in both proficiency and staffing. The requisite means of action, and the mere upkeep of the protection systems, often exceed their capacities. Rural municipalities may find themselves in a situation of complete dependence on the State’s area-based services.


Storms, hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, floods, forest fires, marine pollution, aeroplane crashes, accidents in tunnels, etc, are now “someone else’s fault”, although no one ever worries about their own responsibility for failure to take prior preventive and/or protective action, such as taking out an insurance policy in order to secure financial cover.

Fifty years ago people thought twice about starting proceedings against a state, department or municipality, whereas there is now a plethora of legal action against their agents (elected representatives, civil servants, prefects).

At the same time the courts dealing with complaints lodged by victims seeking some kind of compensation (encouraged by their lawyers to approach any or all of the whole range of administrative, civil and criminal courts) seem to be “concentrating” on the very handy scapegoat of the municipal mayor, a trend which is particularly in evidence in France, where the procedure appears also to involve finding “accomplices” for the mayor in the Departments and Regions, or indeed at State level. Action is also often brought against third parties (industrialists, transport companies, etc ).

Risk culture

"Every act involves an element of risk, either significant or minor. The existence of that risk is predictable, in so far as nothing at all is completely risk-free. So the risk is definitely there. But nobody can know where, how or when it will manifest itself. The certainty that it exists is not programmable economically, socially or legally.

The “precautionary principle” now often referred to covers all measures or arrangements of any kind planned or implemented in the public or collective interest in anticipation of some or all of a hypothetical risk, about which there is no definitive scientific certainty, with a view to eliminating or minimising its consequences of every kind at a reasonable and appropriate cost.

The precautionary principle requires a system of a posteriori monitoring and an a priori scientific evaluation system (the latter is often lacking), within a particularly precise framework of regulations and economic conditions." (Ref. F)

Some sound ideas of relevance, providing threads which run through this report, were put forward by local councillors during the Congress of French Mayors, held in Paris in November 2001, such as:

- Councillors are in a good position to know that one of our citizens who is today applying for exceptional permission to build in a flood-prone area will later be the first to demand full protection and compensation.

- Our underlying doctrine should be determined not by attempts to prevent a flood from occurring at all (which will always be an impossibility), but by an effort to achieve a zero casualty rate if one nevertheless occurs.

- It is no longer feasible in France to live under a system where everything is always repaid, as currently happens in the social security system, with its yawning deficit still growing wider by the day. Of course, our system of insurance against natural disasters is viewed with jealous eyes by those of our European fellow citizens who lack such a guarantee. But it cannot stand up to ever-increasing systematic reimbursements in respect of contingencies that have always happened, and will always happen until the end of time. One example is that of my village, which is repeatedly flooded at the seasonal whim of the river Saône, which, unless Hercules is set to work again, will surely never be diverted from its course to clean some new Augean stables.

And Yves Dauge MP, Mayor of Chinon, who wrote a report for the Prime Minister about the flooding, affirmed that it was inevitable that a two-speed insurance system would very rapidly have to be set up (the process is already under way, in fact), requiring those insured and their communities to participate in preventive efforts to reduce their vulnerability. It was necessary, if such a compensation system was to be accepted, for a public debate to be started. People had to decide for themselves whether, in certain places, they wished to build on at-risk land or close to a hazardous plant, giving a written undertaking to accept the risk, a document officially recorded so as to perpetuate knowledge of the facts. In other words, what was needed was a risk culture."


Local authorities generally have a role in prevention measures, in providing information about risks, in the promotion of contingency planning, in the coordination of emergency services when the disaster happens, in the reconstruction and rehabilitation thereafter of people and places and in applying lessons learnt.

Such responsibilities will necessarily include:

- gathering of historic and geographical information on high-risk areas, (perhaps with
the assistance of a European, national or regional observatory?);
- establish risk exposure maps and risk prevention plans;
- provide proper warnings for populations at risk by means of local alarm systems;
- organise the provision of first aid in such a way as to avoid panic;
- provide (if necessary through inter-municipal co-operation in each high-risk area) for the maintenance and repair of any public works that have been damaged and are required for the resumption of normal civil life.

If reference is made to practice in a particular country, an example is in France where, given his/her authority over municipal police, the Mayor is required to take the necessary measures to guard against prejudice to public safety, whether by human agency or arising from natural hazards: peril or grave danger, serious, real or significant risk, and discernible or foreseeable danger.

The citizens also owe a duty of care (particularly where people live beside seas and rivers, protection of their property rests with the owners, under the terms of a law of 19 September 1907 which is still in force).

As to interventions, the mayor may order a private owner to carry out works intended to meet a natural hazard.

Mayors are required to protect their citizens through public works, on the dual condition that these are genuinely useful for guarding against danger and in proportion to the municipality’s financial resources.

The mayor must take immediate action in the event of grave or imminent danger, whether it arises from a predicted natural disaster or from standing risks that may materialise rapidly. Measures are varied: prohibiting traffic, ordering evacuation, declaring unfit for habitation, prescribing public or private works, etc.

Defaulting mayors can be instructed to act, or replaced, by the prefect.

Mayors of course incur personal criminal liability for failing in their duties of security and/or assistance. In spite of the new Fauchon law (10 July 2000), the corporate liability of the local authority is apparently unaffected, since it can only be criminally liable in case of delegation of a public service, and administrative control activities cannot be delegated.


In the prevention and management of natural disasters and emergencies, local authorities are in the front line. They suffer the immediate impact and are often obliged to take rapid remedial measures.

Yet, they do not always have the necessary resources to cope. Moreover, central government, often issues guidelines and imposes statutory responsibilities on local authorities without according them resources necessary to do the job.

Although this is a familiar picture in central local government relationships, in this case it can have disastrous consequences.


Whilst local authorities have an undoubted role, it is important that they are encouraged and authorised to liaise with other relevant agencies and levels of government, in order to deal with disasters and emergencies.

For the purposes of this Resolution it is therefore understood that the following proposals addressed principally to local authorities are equally addressed, in varying degrees, to other agencies and levels of administration.


How can one guard against such a range of hazards?

For some years, scientists have been struggling with varying success to gain a better grasp of risks by perfecting their mapping and modelling.

With avalanches for instance, although the hazard cannot be obviated, planners are capable of determining the corridors more accurately in order to stop future build-up.

Regarding ground motion or earthquakes, we still do not know how to predict them even in the short term. On the other hand, more is known about the propagation mechanisms of seismic waves according to geological characteristics. Grenoble, for instance, stands at the junction of glacial valleys that cause effects of resonance. Here, movements are amplified ten or fifteen-fold between the deep strata and the surface.

Where flooding is concerned, scientists are now better able to demarcate the areas to which the floodwater will reach, by relying on radar detection of rainfall. Some fifteen radar stations exist in France but there should be one per department, entailing an investment of
1 500 000 euro per installed unit.

The increasing frequency of natural disasters has acted as a detonator in quickening the pace of introduction of PPRs (Plans de Prévention des Risques - risk prevention plans). This instrument, an outcome of the 1995 Barnier law, is a means of incorporating likely hazards into planning decisions. It is central to the sustainable development issue.
(Ref G)

The aim of this risk prevention plan (PPR) of the Barnier law is to infer, from a historical analysis of the principal events which have affected the area under consideration, the natural hazards to which it is exposed (ground motion/landslips, avalanches, floods, etc.) and to mark out on a map of risk factors the zones directly or indirectly subject to such hazards together with their foreseeable impact on persons and property. In these zones, building or improvements may be either prohibited or permitted only on condition that there is a regulation stipulating non-exposure of the actual buildings and developments in question, which moreover are not to constitute factors that would aggravate the hazards, and on the further condition that the proper measures are specified regarding alteration, use or operation of pre-existing buildings and structures (for purposes of agriculture, tourism, recreation, etc.).
The PPR has the force of a public servitude and is attached to the municipal land use plan (POS - Plan d’Occupation des Sols).

The PPR procedure thus makes it possible to identify and guard against such risks, to control urban development, to order expropriation on the ground of major natural hazards, to carry out urgent work needed to contend with them, and to insure against their consequences.

As it is intended in France to apply a PPR to 5 000 municipalities by 2005, the Ministry of Public Works has commissioned Ernst & Young to make a survey of local authorities’ expectations in this regard.

"Replies were obtained from 38% of the 2 000 municipalities surveyed, mainly from elected representatives, expressing their strong involvement in issues of natural hazards management.

While 60% of respondents claimed they were well-acquainted with the aims of the PPR and realised its implications once adopted, 70% deplored the length and the complexity of the procedure, and fewer than 40% felt they were given a say in it by the central government administration, taxed with failing to heed “popular wisdom” and take account of residents’ and representatives’ local knowledge."
(Ref: H)

In more scientific terms, however, to identify assess, prevent and manage the hazards created by any kind of system and those linked with its environment, the French Society for Major Risks, among other expert services, offers MOSAR (Méthode Organisée et Systémique d’Analyse des Risques - organised systemic method of risk analysis) for analysing any technological and/or natural system (industrial, agricultural, urban, municipal, transport, etc.).
By helping to demonstrate the hazards which an installation creates, and their human and environmental impact, this analysis makes it possible to establish accident scenarios, to specify the prevention and protection barriers required to forestall contributory events, to single out the errors and the parameters to be allowed for in containing such events, and to determine the knowledge that should be acquired regarding prevention and training in control of risks.

"Some European countries have long since enacted special legislation to remedy the effects of agricultural and natural disasters, storms, and more recently drought and flooding.

Moreover, with a view to containing such harmful consequences as far as possible, States have tasked their local authorities with drawing up risk exposure plans as an incentive to local preventive action against these potential disasters.

France, which has already prohibited (re)building in hazardous areas, is even gravitating towards legalising the expropriation of existing dwellings and decreeing reduced compensation for victims in municipalities where the local authorities have failed to study the risk exposure plans or the victims themselves have failed to take the individual action recommended in such local directives."
(Ref: I i)

Case studies

a. Nîmes

"A DICRIM (Document d’Information Communal sur les RIsques Majeurs - municipal information document on major risks) surveying the three main known hazards (floods, forest fires, hazardous transport) with mapping and listing of protective measures, as well as specification of the requisite steps and how to act in an emergency, has been sent to all residents of Nîmes.

Lastly, the municipality has set up an operational centre for crisis management and introduced a relief and rescue plan for the purpose of updating all procedures and providing a simple description of each operator’s action during the various phases.

Over and above a plain works policy, this is a true comprehensive risk management policy embracing the technical, sociological, organisational, legal, economic and financial aspects of the approach and also establishing a safety and risk prevention directorate as part of the municipal services."
(Ref J)

b. The Ministry of Regional Planning and Environment, France

"The Under-Directorate for the Prevention of Major Hazards (SDPRM) of the French Ministry of Regional Planning and the Environment (MATE) wishes to help to develop a preventive approach for the sake of, not only people’s safety, but also the avoidance of periodic threats to spatial planning from natural occurrences which, while they are of course extreme, are not all that unusual. The stakes are high. In years when no major disaster occurs in France, the annual value of the damage caused is € 500 000 000.

The Ministry’s policy is intended to ensure that natural risks are taken fully into account, together with biodiversity, pollution and waste control and the balance between urban areas and the countryside. Prerequisites for the development of a preventive approach are a knowledge of the phenomena concerned, their monitoring, a vulnerability assessment and the provision of information to members of the public, who have often lost that “feel” for their territory that limited resources and a better knowledge of local geography had inculcated into their forebears.

Lastly, every disaster also provides an opportunity to learn from the feedback which is gradually being collected and provides a better basis for choosing the most effective preventive measures.

To sum up, the ultimate aims of the activities of the SDPRM are to develop a risk culture and to ensure that risks become a geographical element which is taken into account properly in the spatial planning context.

Then we shall no longer need to call natural phenomena “natural disasters”, or to refer to fate when not even the most basic precautions have been taken. This presupposes concerted action by all concerned, not just the state, which has undeniable responsibilities under the law, but also local authorities and those who play a role in civil society. It is in the common interest of all to encourage building on the safest land and where the ground lends itself most to sustainable development."
(Ref. K)

Furthermore, it is important to retain a collective memory. Rare, but significant, events need to be treated with particular care to ensure that they remain in the folk memory. They occur too infrequently for personal knowledge of them to be based on experience.

Who in France, for instance, ever thinks of making use of the dozens of volumes written by Champion on the history of flooding from the tenth century to 1850 (tomes which lie gathering dust on the shelves of France’s national library)?

Less scientific, perhaps, but of educational value for the school pupils of the municipality, is the example from the Consultant's own school experience, of the marks on the village’s mediaeval gateway indicating the high water levels of the Saône over the past 200 years.


A coherent management of water courses should include a number of characteristics:

- Protecting, restoring or recreating floodplains, for example, there is a plan to restore 160 km² on the Rhine alluvial plain and 11000 km² in the Rhine basin by the year 2020
- Restoring natural watercourses, ensuring that rivers are not separated from their tributaries and that continuity is safeguarded or re-established.
- Restoring and reforesting natural areas, including the promotion of biodiversity and the expansion of natural reserves;
- Reducing building density along river banks and flood plains;
- Promoting rainwater seepage and limiting the sealing of surfaces.

In any case, care should be taken in the construction of dykes, so beloved of the “miracle workers”. Most of these “protective” embankments are mere ineffective “Maginot Lines” which only survive for a short while, as witness by the rapid destruction of the Mississippi levees during flooding.

Deepening riverbeds is another illusion which cannot stand up to simple arithmetic: a few extra square metres of face area are not going to absorb a sudden inflow of thousands of cubic metres of water. Once the riverbed has been invaded, the water will naturally overflows, as before and burst the riverbanks.

On other aspects of coherent management, it could be salutary to heed the advice of a Breton flood specialist, Annick CLEAC’H:

"The whole agricultural environment needs rethinking. We need to cut back on annual crops of the maize type and get back to grass, the vegetable cover par excellence, which acts as a sponge. Similarly, why not install grassy areas, r estore part of the hedged farmland system and plant shelterbelts perpendicular to the slopes? Some farmers are already doing this of their own accord, and the Conseil Général du Finistère is providing subsidies for such work.

I am all in favour of dams. I have studied the Chinese approach to the problem of annual flooding which claims hundreds of thousands of lives. The Chinese have constructed enormous dams, some of them with reservoirs the size of France, and have achieved positive results. Of course we are working on a smaller scale. We must consider creating medium-sized reservoirs in order to regulate rises in water levels. However, it must be borne in mind that this kind of construction can sometimes cause water pollution."
(Ref L)

In relation to the use of dams or holding ponds, upstream, these can be extremely useful in protecting city centres and equally useful downstream in order to avoid penalising other municipalities.


It is important to restrict housing and industrial development in areas prone to flooding.

If property is nonetheless constructed in such areas, prospective owners should be sufficiently forewarned in conveyancing transactions. In terms of land use policy, this may included the principle of reapportionment of land.

For example, the municipality of Grisolles (Tarn-et-Garonne département) recently launched a pilot scheme involving transfers between land prone (or not prone) to flooding and land fit (or unfit) for building.

The study perimeter comprises:

- donor zones (suitable for urban development but forfeiting their eligibility for building due to a PPR specifying flood risk);
- recipient zones (those on which eligibility for building is newly conferred);
- agricultural zone (all other land).

Without going into the technical details of calculating the equivalence between agricultural productiveness and promotion of eligibility for building, the study proves that the reapportionment-development procedure can be applied to flood-prone land subject to a legislative amendment.

The municipality must in fact have areas suitable for urban development, the local councillors and officials must realise what is at stake in the operation and participate in its conduct, and lastly there must be solidarity among landowners.

It is still not out of the question to envisage similar solutions for other natural risks.
(Ref M)

Again, it may be useful to quote the advice of Anncik Cleac'h in relation to flooding in Redon, Brittany. "On the other hand it is more difficult to counter urbanisation - what has been done has been done. For the future much stricter regulations will be needed. We should ensure that detailed dossiers are drawn up on sensitive areas, and effectively block any further urban sprawl. For example, if all the rules had been respected at least some of the new parts of the town of Redon would never have been built. As we all know, this town is located at the confluence of two rivers in a marshy region susceptible to flooding."

There is also a need for a “risk perimeter” which imposes special conditions on the various urban development authorisations (building permits, declaration of intended work, recreational areas, etc.). (Ref. L)


The other vector of prevention is protective engineering: embankments, dams, avalanche barriers, reinforced construction techniques, reforestation, sediment traps, etc. But while works such as earthquake-resistant construction prove very effective at a small extra cost – 1 or 2% - other developments are two-edged: systematically embanking rivers makes things worse downstream and may aggravate damage in the event of heavy flooding. Besides, protective engineering reassures people so that they gradually lose all risk-consciousness and find themselves even more disoriented when disaster strikes – especially as there is a lot of room for improvement in natural hazard alert systems, for flash floods in particular.

That is why it is important that there is cooperation between residents living near rivers and not just at the moment of floods.

An example is again in the municipality of the Consultant where residents, accustomed to the periodic flooding of the Saône, have established a stock of sand bags, at their own initiative, in order to line door lintels, blocks for raising up furniture and boarding to act as passage ways above the water level.

In addition, plumbers and electricians know by experience that water pipes, electric cables and gas conduits should not be at risk of being submerged and they are therefore generally installed in ceilings rather than in floors.


Local authorities inevitably will be called upon to have programmes for contingency planning in the event of storms. These can include the renegotiation of insurance policies on a new value basis; the purchase of generators to ensure water and electricity supplies for the population, the burying of electric and telephone lines, the establishment of intervention units in fire stations and the distribution of information sheets to the population to ensure that they have the right reflexes in the event of major storms.
(Ref N)


In France, the ONF (National Forestry Office) estimates that it will take some fifteen years for the areas damaged in 1999 to look like forests again.

The first requirement is to learn from the past : in the 1950s, if there was a storm the authorities made a clean sweep of it and replanted new trees, often using unsuitable species such as fast-growing spruce in valley areas, where the roots remain fairly superficial, which meant that they were the first victims of the hurricanes Lothar and Martin: the wind simply flipped the trees over, creating a spectacular domino effect.

The ONF has learnt its lesson from the storms. “Gone are the days of rectilinear rows of trees, fir trees planted dead straight. The watchwords are now tailoring plantations to local environmental conditions, ensuring diversity of species and planting at different heights in order to block the wind.

We are now prioritising natural regeneration, which does not mean doing nothing: efforts are needed to encourage some of the more fragile species, enrich certain stands, help things along; oak, beech, wild cherry, maple and ash, etc, are all to be replanted where necessary in order to promote diversity.

We shall be leaving some timber on the ground in order to protect the soil from frost and erosion and foster natural seeding.”

A Guide to natural regeneration of French forests has been published to explain this approach to the general public, who are surprised to find uprooted trees still lying on the ground.

The ONF has also strengthened its links with the rural municipalities worst hit by the storms and is working on an “ecocertification” label: "timber buyers and negotiators increasingly want to be able to prove to their customers that they are not engaged in plundering natural resources and that their wood comes from a system of sustainable management."
(Ref O)

Moreover, the compensation procedures following these storms brought out a specific feature of French forests, viz the fact that it is compartmentalised. For instance, the Vosges department alone has more than 50 000 owners of areas of under one hectare, out of a total of 16 500 hectares of woodland. In the Meurthe-et-Moselle department, the forest is even more fragmented: 35 585 owners and only 8 850 ha.

"The fact of private ownership of compartments within municipal forest land, and conversely of municipally owned areas inside private forests is complicating the post-storm management effort. Our objective, before beginning the land reallocation procedure, is to create coherent compartments by organising a “stock exchange” through the intermediary of the groupements forestiers (groups dealing with regrouping of forest land and forestry management)."
(Ref P)

Case study: Website media forest

The Mimizan municipality in the Landes department has opened a forum on the site www.mediaforest.net to post urgent job offers for tree fellers and forest labourers. This facility has also led to contacts with foreign professionals, which are vital since all the French specialists are already busy.

"The aim was to prevent what had happened in Germany in 1995, where lack of training and experience meant that more people died during the post-storm clear-up operations than during the disaster itself. Another consideration was that early action was needed to clear the main roads for fire services and prevent accidents during the summer holidays in these popular tourist areas. The fact is that no one knew exactly what the administrative procedure was for recruiting individuals from a large number of different countries.

Lastly, on-line timber sales were organised: Spain was the main purchaser, but the site also pinpointed potential new markets in India, China and South America."
(Ref Q)


Although there are few problems with reconstructing “ordinary” buildings covered by proper insurance contracts, the same does not apply to ancient buildings belonging to a given town’s cultural or religious heritage (churches, museums, libraries, etc). In such cases regard must be had to architectural and archaeo-material aspects, and opinions must be secured from architectural specialists before any work is initiated.

At the present time in France, scaffolding, provisional roofings and security perimeters are still marring the aspect of historic treasures in many stricken municipalities. Pending implementation of the restoration programmes proposed by the Architectes des Bâtiments de France, only real emergency work has so far been conducted in order to consolidate buildings and prevent further damage.

Furthermore, the buildings which suffered most were generally those already in poor condition, so that the emphasis is now being laid on regular inspections of these buildings and a minimum level of preventive maintenance work.

Lastly, many private individuals learnt to their cost that while they are entitled to lease a burial plot in a cemetery, they are also responsible for its upkeep, and so they are required to pay for any damage caused on their plots, with the municipality covering the communal areas and trees and shrubs.

A total of 300 000 graves were damaged during the storm in November 2000.


The occurrence of earthquakes is more probable in some places than in others: virtually all the “active” zones have now been identified; moreover, simple observations can provide clues as to the seismic activity to be expected: in certain circumstances, the lack of seismic activity over a certain period of time in a specific region can be interpreted as an indication that an event is likely to occur there in the near future.

Clearly, of fundamental importance, is that the design and architecture of housing and buildings should reflect the risk of earthquakes in areas prone to them. Equally important, of course, is the avoidance of housing completely in such areas although this may not always be feasible or practical.

In terms of contingency planning it is important to set up neighbourhood teams, in cooperation with local authorities, set to go into action as soon as the disaster happens, drawing on their intimate knowledge of the local area.

Also essential is drawing up a full-scale disaster action plan to include all the foreseeable events and the requisite action during the critical first two to three hours; installing assembly points around containers with the emergency equipment, viz ropes, pickaxes, lamps and torches; alerting the public and explaining the procedure in detail in order to avoid panic.

Resolution paragraphs 20-25 on respectively

The Rapporteurs feel that there is little need to add notes to the proposals contained in the above paragraphs, in that they are sufficiently explanatory.


It is essential for local authorities to survey industrial, infrastructure and utility installations, within their territories in order to assess risks.

In European terms, this has given rise to the Seveso Directives. By way of explanation:

Ten years after the dramatic fire at the Feyzin refinery in the Rhône department of France, a release of dioxins into the air occurred from a chemical reactor used to manufacture herbicides in Seveso (northern Italy). The residents living nearest to the plant were evacuated, livestock was slaughtered and a large number of buildings were demolished. The effects of the accident were felt by more than 37 000 people, and immediate reactions were highly charged even beyond Italy.

It was the European Union which prepared a change in legislation. A first Seveso Directive “on the major-accident hazards of certain industrial activities” was adopted in 1982 (known as the “Seveso I Directive”). This called on states and firms to identify the hazards and to plan and implement measures to deal with them.

Then, after significant pollution of the Rhine occurred as a result of a leak of pharmaceutical products in 1986, the framework was gradually expanded. In 1996, another directive (the “Seveso II Directive”) stepped up preventive activity, singling out establishments classified as “upper tier” ones, and its scope was extended to the manufacture and storage of explosives, the elimination of hazardous waste, and nuclear installations where hazards of chemical origin exist. This is a directive which covers the whole site, and is no longer confined solely to the hazardous plant. (France has 1 250 “Seveso II establishments”.) Provision is also made in the directive for the effects of an accident on nearby installations to be considered, so as to prevent the “domino effect”.

It is undeniable that the interpretation and application of the Seveso Directives is controversial. Some politicians argue that they can have a perverse effect, penalising local economic development, municipal management, employment prospects, property prices and even discouraging tourism.

This must be balanced, certainly, against the undeniable right that citizens have of knowing the risks in their immediate neighbourhood.


A recurrent dilemma faced by the local authorities is the siting of industrial installations. Should such plants be right next to urban areas or relegated to the countryside?

Perhaps the dilemma can be best illustrated by a detailed reference again to the Toulouse explosion which gave rise to a major difference of opinion between the French President (removal of the plant) and the French Prime Minister (relocation of the population).

Of course, industrial and commercial establishments are needed to provide people with jobs.

When the original works was built, in 1924, there were hardly any homes in the area. The city expanded in the post-war period, at the request of workers who wished to live closer to their places of employment. The schools and sports facilities they wanted followed soon afterwards, and then came university halls of residence, as the intention was to intersperse these with the homes of working people. The industrial site remained, of course, new activities being added and old ones altered or improved, without anyone challenging its urban location or the urban development around it.

When city and works exist in dangerous proximity, can an industrial plant be forced to move out? And where could it go?

Even in disadvantaged areas, or even in the middle of the sparsely populated countryside, what community, however small, will now accept plants of this kind? The “not in my backyard” attitude will prevail.

And would those who run the plants agree to set up well away from the large-scale transport facilities they need: ports, rivers and waterways, motorways and railways?

And if they are to move away, why not shift to the Fourth World, where labour is so much cheaper? Then what will happen to employment in France and elsewhere in Europe?

And what do the local residents themselves think?

Whereas thousands of people marched through the city on 21 December with banners proclaiming “never again”, a demonstration of a similar size had been held one week earlier to ask for the stricken works to be reopened so that the jobs there could be saved.

Elected local representatives of right and left-wing parties alike each defend their own interests. They say that jobs and the proceeds of taxes on businesses are needed. Toulouse’s three chemicals works, including AZF, pay almost € 10 million a year to the city in business and land taxes (5 % of the city council’s investment budget), as well as € 4 million to the department and the region.


Again, if the situation in France could be used as an example, civil security in schools is not always as developed as it could be.

As a result of the explosion of the AZF plant in Toulouse when some 80 primary, 30 lower secondary and 15 upper secondary schools were damaged, with 4 being totally destroyed, lessons are now being learnt.

"The School Security Observatory is to produce by mid-2002 a map of risk-prone schools and devise specific plans for making them safe.

Some départements are already in the forefront, such as Bouches-du-Rhône where over 287 schools received information in June 2001 on a plan entitled SESAM (Secours dans un Etablissement Scolaire face à l’Accident Majeur – rescue in a school in the event of major accident).

In Poitou-Charente, school directors will be provided with a manual on storms and were to attend training sessions on the necessary action, given by firemen and financed by the regional authority.

In Ile-de-France, the Regional Council is studying alterations to school buildings to increase their solidity: prime contractors for new secondary schools have been instructed to follow the zone 4 “snow and wind” rules (182 kph winds) normally applied to the capes of Finistère, the Contentin Peninsula and Corsica and to the Rhone Valley."
(Ref R)

The Observatory’s report for 2001 makes a series of proposals such as expanding the various emergency aid services to cover the entire territory and applying a precautionary principle to the construction of schools, no longer to be built “near potential sources of electromagnetic fields and waves”.


Accidents relating to transport and communications infrastructures happen as frequently as technological accidents as described in section 5 above.

Whether these be of road, air or sea transport; of passenger or goods traffic or in relation to their infrastructures of motorways, railways, tunnels, airports or navigational routes, they generally cause a tragically high number of fatalities and are, in any case, devastating for the environment.

Toxic products are dangerous not only in the factories where they are made but also for residents along the routes whenever transported.

A particularly preoccupying case is that of coastal areas which end up sooner or later being scarred by maritime pollution. It is necessary and urgent that a draconian European position is taken against such polluters and why not against "exotic" countries which lend their names to flags of convenience, with little respect of the ethos of genuine seafarers.


Detection, assessment, prevention and alert cannot be impromptu: they require planning and full public information. Some specific examples are:-

a. The Bimont dam (Bouches-du-Rhône), France

As early as 1970, France made “alert plans” compulsory for the 90 large French dams over 20m in height and impounding over 15m3 of water.

The PPIs (Plans Particuliers d’Intervention – specific intervention plans) setting out the organisation of aid and rescue now stipulate preventive public information by the mayors of the municipalities concerned.

"Accordingly, all information is public as regards the structure’s degree of exposure to seismic risk, risk of collapse and exceptional flooding (probability once in 5 000 years!) or the appearance of structural abnormalities.

Propagation of the dam break wave was calculated, defining the immediate security zone for which three phases in the probability of the risk materialising are prescribed: high vigilance; serious concern; alert with implementation of the action plan.

Public information was the subject of an extensive campaign: 50 000 copies of a coloured brochure (with a 1 / 25000 scale map of the submerged areas and the nine assembly points), public meetings in each municipality, press articles, video film, etc.

Yet the practice evacuation of residents from the immediate security zone, often spoken of since 1997, remained to be carried out: the size of the population concerned (55 000 residents) and the presence of the A8 motorway and of schools made it tricky to organise though all the more necessary!

In conclusion, however, it may be observed that this information did not revive collective phobias and the case of the Bimont dam indicates the change in attitudes regarding communication about risks. The public demands clear, comprehensive information and the authorities and the operators have everything to gain by making transparency their trump card."
(Ref S)

This recalls the words of Gertrude, the young blind heroine of Gide’s Pastoral Symphony: “I do not care to be happy, I prefer to know. To be sure, there are many sad things which I cannot see, but you have no right to leave me in ignorance of them.”.
(Ref I ii)

b. Electricité de France

The French electricity authority (EDF), for instance, mindful of its position as sole electricity supplier for the entire country, and aware of its deficiencies during certain storms when it comes to restoring a minimum supply for all households, has set itself three objectives:

Also, in co-operation with the local and regional authorities, EDF has set up a “crisis management” unit responsible for feedback, co-ordination of the various emergency committees, carrying on dialogue with the official representatives, utilisation and dissemination of information from or to mayors, customers and enterprises, use of generating equipment, updating of emergency plans, priorities of the FIRE, co-ordination with the technical resources of the municipalities and départements, etc.

Lastly, a “networks security” committee is responsible for technical choices, examines the special resources to be provided for hospitals, telephone exchanges and reservoirs, and controls or reviews the local authorities’ rank classification of premises whose supply absolutely must be maintained, the grouping of accommodation facilities shared by several municipalities, the strategic positioning of fixed or mobile rescue equipment, and the inventorying if appropriate of privately owned generators that may be requisitioned.

c. La Redorte (Aude)

Redorte, a municipality of 1 000 inhabitants in France, has equipped itself with a highly sophisticated telephone alert system for floods, hitherto set aside for large cities only. The Antibia system is an automatic device that sends out pre-recorded information messages to the population by telephone in the event of flood danger and, if the threat is confirmed, issues the evacuation order. Cost per municipality: 10 000 euro. In November 1999, floods caused 750 000 euro worth of damage in the municipality.

d. Weather forecasting

Equally important is a fully comprehensive national weather alert system.

In France, the Regional Weather Alert Bulletins (BRAM - Bulletins Régionaux d’Alerte Météorologique) are a good example of such a system. Messages, sent out when freak weather events (wind velocity, precipitation volume, snow depth) reach thresholds of maximum intensity, are decisive in mobilising aid and warning residents promptly.

"However, certain terms employed in these bulletins did not allow precise location of falls. Thanks to a recent advance, the installation beginning this year of a new technique called “variational data assimilation” allows forecasts to be constantly rectified. But the minor revolution chiefly concerns the method of transmitting weather reports at département level.

In order to clarify the message, the familiar BRAMs are now transmitted in the form of a coloured map according to a gradation of colours resembling the flags on beaches that tell swimmers the state of the sea.".

This new crisis management system has been installed since 1 October 2001. A weather watch chart is regularly prepared twice a day to warn of any possible dangerous weather event over the next 24 hours. A colour is assigned to each French département according to the potential dangers associated with these forecasts:

- green: no special vigilance recommended;
- yellow: care should be taken, especially in relation to weather-sensitive activities (likely to be affected by mistral, storms, etc.);
- orange: extreme vigilance recommended, as dangerous events are forecast; follow the safety advice of the public authorities;
- red: absolute vigilance imperative owing to dangerous events of rare intensity; safety instructions issued by the public authorities must be complied with.

In “orange” and “red” situations, the alert is issued by the prefect who informs the rescue services and sets up a monitoring unit (orange) or an emergency committee (red). Mayors pass these alerts on to their residents.

National and local contingency planning

Of course, a national plan for dealing with major emergencies is required in addition to the more sectoral aspects described above. In France, this is known as the ORSEC(ORganisation des SECours - aid and rescue organisation).

This is echoed locally by the PCPS (Programme communal de prévention et de secours - local prevention and aid programme). For imminent events, only local resources or relays for detection, assessment, early warning and alert can ensure the safety of the people threatened (evacuation and protection from danger). Only a local operational structure, ie one instantly on the scene in an emergency, can provide aid in situations of extreme urgency.


"The French law of 22 July 1987, section 21, stipulates that citizens are entitled to receive information on the major risks affecting them and on the protection measures concerning them. This information must be disseminated in municipalities having residential areas subject to major technological or natural hazards. To produce these mandatory documents, the prefect sets up a CARIP (Cellule d’Analyse des Risques et d’Information Préventive - risk analysis and preventive information unit) responsible for drawing up a list of risk-prone municipalities, maps of risk factors and interests at stake, and the DDRM ( Dossier Départemental des Risques Majeurs – département file on major risks) used by each mayor to draw up the municipal DICRIM which is kept available to the public."
(Ref T)

"Nonetheless, the population living in the vicinity of classified dangerous sites usually does not feel particularly concerned. While factory operators and elected representatives make efforts regarding prevention, information campaigns aimed at the public all to often echo in a vacuum. In 1998, during the latest meetings organised on our initiative in the various town halls of the Grenoble “chemical corridor”, meeting rooms were generally empty or just about"
(Ref U).

Case study: ARLES

This town in the Camargue, famous both for its Greco-Roman origins and for Alphonse Daudet’s heroine, has decided to issue a leaflet and a poster to inform its 50 000 residents of major local hazards and how to act in the event of an accident. While stressing their low probability, the leaflet mentions the six risks identified: floods, dam break, forest fire, earthquake, industrial accident or accident involving the transport of dangerous substances.

How to recognise the warning signals for each danger; what essential actions to foresee; what each person should do in each type of situation. These are the questions to which precise answers are given, backed by diagrams, in plain language appealing to children and adults alike.

Education of children

During the AZF disaster the reactions of teachers reflected their lack of preparedness: for want of real-time information (telephone lines cut), and faced with the risk of a poisonous cloud spreading (once the site of the accident was known), there was a clash of contradictory safety drills: take cover / assemble the pupils in the yard / evacuate them towards the town centre ... all such instructions being even less suitable in that all windows were broken, making it dangerous to remain indoors, and the evacuation of pupils was obstructed by the sudden traffic jams in the city.

The Directorate of School Education and the Directorate for Prevention of Pollution and Risks are also working on the preparation of an operational guide for devising a pupil safety plan in primary and secondary schools. This will be a practical adapted version of the SESAM plan, prepared in 1995 in the context of the “major risks education network” whose establishment is meeting difficulties over training of school directors and teachers in each educational district.

Training of elected representatives

One of the bodies approved by the French Minister of the Interior on the recommendation of the CNFEL (Conseil National pour la Formation des Elus Locaux – national council for training of local elected representatives) is “LES ECO-MAIRES”, an association intended to bring together local councils that make the winning of a more human environment an absolute priority of their mandate, and seeking in particular to promote more effective local initiatives for the benefit of the environment and to encourage all types of action aimed at improving the environment, led by the mayor as the chief planner of the surroundings in which his fellow-citizens live.

Prominent among the mayor’s actions is training of the local councillors, and especially training modules on storage of waste, carriage of dangerous substances, air pollution, application of the Seveso directive, the major technological hazards element of spatial planning, and consultation.


Evacuation, where possible, ie when the disaster in anticipated long enough in advance, still remains the best method of averting fatalities.

Hence in mid-January 2002 the prefect of La Réunion, fearing a flow of lava from the reactivated Fournaise volcano, opted for provisional removal of the 800 residents of Bois Blanc. They were placed in accommodation centres in neighbouring municipalities where they calmly awaited the end of the alert. Meanwhile the police remained on the scene to protect the evacuees’ property from possible acts of vandalism, or theft.

Unfortunately it does not always happen like that:

At the same time and the same latitude in the Congo Republic, 300 000 residents of Goma had fled from the eruption of Nyiaragogno. Yet despite the dreadful damage in their town, still shaken by strong tremors, despite the appeals to common sense by NGOs calling upon them to enter the camps prepared for them, the residents went back too soon when warned of looting and hundreds died after the delayed explosion of a petrol tank.


Fortunately, in the heat of a crisis the first sentiment actuating all people, whoever they are and wherever they live, is solidarity.

Solidarity, first between stricken neighbours then from unaffected citizens in the locality and later the environs; this spontaneous and short-lived solidarity is often personalised, channelled directly from the donor to the recipient.

It is an absolutely vital form of emergency assistance nonetheless.

Thereafter, if the disaster is significant and thus “mediatised”, national or possibly international solidarity takes over.

Finally, when the event recedes into the past, the memory fades and “outsiders” to the disaster forget the event, returning to their own day-to-day concerns or even rushing to support some other population. Suffice it to note that in Toulouse itself, the Airbus city, even the replacement of the broken window panes in the houses was too much to ask, and the residents affected by the disaster are still shivering in harsh winter conditions.

At that point, relief is provided by official solidarity and/or insurance.

Local councillors and authorities thus have a major task devolving on them in law and in practice: allocation and distribution of aid.

This is not always easy; objectiveness must be maintained because fairness is not always strict equality, and clearly the most deprived must be served first. Care must also be taken to prevent aid trafficking. From his considerable experience of providing international aid in Africa, the Consultant is well acquainted with the dangers of the “black market” (no unhappy racist connotation intended!) in humanitarian aid.

Last but not least, the survivors of a disaster may need psychological assistance.

Following the bomb attempts in the Paris underground in 1995 and 1996, the government made an assessment of the victims’ progress. It was found necessary to set up medical-psychological casualty units for immediate post-traumatic care of numerous victims in a disaster situation.


Whether disasters are of natural or technological origin, people in fact spontaneously look for failings, hence responsibilities to pin on someone. As often happens in times of crisis, emotion prevails over reason. Thus, one cannot help noticing the growth over the last few years of nothing less than a right of victims, irrespective of the real or presumed failings: the right to be heard, to be informed, to receive assistance in various forms (psychological, financial, medical, etc.) immediately following the disaster, and above all the right to full compensation for all pecuniary and bodily injuries.


This right to redress of damage is reaffirmed and reinforced when disasters strike, irrespective of the precautions which the victims may have taken, and specifically their contractual insurance situation. This tendency to demand compensation highlights two major problems which were unhappily illustrated during the recent disasters.

Firstly, insurance contract law is shouldered aside by the emotion which parliamentarians and public authorities propagate; insurance carriers are strongly “urged” to compensate over and above the terms of the contract, for the sake of solidarity. Even where the insurer keeps to the contract, elected representatives are often impelled to propose solutions inspired by solidarity to come to the aid of the victims, especially the most destitute.

In this way, enterprises or individuals without proper insurance receive, somewhat unfairly, the same compensation as those who had undertaken a risk assessment and coverage procedure of their own accord.

For although the future victim has no means of influencing the phenomenon that causes the disaster, he/she does have such means as regards possible financial redress of personal damage, by electing to take out insurance.

A further question is the pressure of victims’ associations, sometimes brought to bear in a manner which can influence objectivity.

The problem, then, is one of fair treatment of victims: for instance, why should someone receive higher compensation for losing a foot where the accident was caused by a falling tree in a flood than if the cause was a chainsaw used in everyday life? But this is precisely what the people are demanding!
(Ref B)

Bringing compensation into line with public opinion

Whatever the difficulties, there is certainly a case for a better equation between the law on the one hand and public opinion on the other, in relation to compensation.

For example, in the view of the law, liability for the damage caused when oil tankers sink is borne by the vessel’s owners. But the public debate on the Erika oil slick showed that the law no longer meets society’s expectations. Many other parties were believed to bear responsibility, such as TotalFina, the Italian company which had examined the seaworthiness of the tanker, and, when the vessel sank, the experts from the CEDRE water pollution centre and the meteorological office whose advice was taken by the prefects.

Should this be regarded as indicating deeper uncertainty about the limits of the current system of compensation for damage, in the face of the new environmental demands of “sustainable development” and public opinion?
(Ref V)

People want to see penalties imposed for the negligence committed, and want marine ecosystems and the coastline to be better protected from oil slicks. This expectation cannot be satisfied under civil compensation procedures. As a consequence, criminal prosecutions of not only private individuals (and companies), but also agents of the authorities, are on the increase with a desire to identify unpunished guilty partners.

"Finally, it seems that, in order to get round the obstacles in the system of “liability without intention or negligence”, criminal proceedings relating to ecological disasters are now taken against not just private individuals, but also public officials, including the experts who, despite the neutrality and scientific objectivity of their duties, are becoming ever less likely to go unpunished, because of the crucial role they play in public decision-making."
(Ref V)

Possible solutions?

There are several opposing theories.

1- either a strict solidarity mechanism, as in Spain or Greece, which is hardly conducive to responsible behaviour or a preventive mindset on the part of potential victims;

2- or the British or German systems, which only provide for ordinary law insurance and thus leave most people with a lower level of cover because some cannot afford the premiums corresponding to their particular risk exposure;

3- the French system is a highly original compromise between a voluntary mutual benefit insurance mechanism and organised solidarity involving a mandatory guarantee (on top of any other insurance policy covering the assets in question); the State establishes the rates for this guarantee and also stands surety for the solvency of the scheme.
(Ref I i)

The French CAT NAT system

Since 1982 France has benefited from a special arrangement for redress of material damage caused by natural hazards not included in conventional insurance cover: the “CAT NATs”.

Next July this system will have been in existence for twenty years.

"The French system is unanimously recognised in Europe as the one affording the best cover for subscribers against natural hazards and disasters.

Moreover, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy have drawn inspiration from it for their own study of a compulsory scheme.

In Spain, a public fund financed by a contribution levied on damage insurance contracts provides compensation in respect of the principal natural disasters.

In Norway there is a compulsory insurance scheme managed by a pool that reinsures itself on the international market, compensation being restricted to 1.8 billion NOK (250 000 000 euro).

Switzerland also has a compulsory guarantee for natural events, but with a compensation ceiling set at 150 million CHF (100 000 000 euro) per event. The other countries have no system relying on the solidarity of the insured, and consequently award guarantees that are far more limited in nature and amount."

In the face of differing European practice, the European Parliament is likely to propose a plan for harmonising insurance schemes.

Finally a word about some concepts of personal insurance in relations to disasters and emergencies.

Personal insurance: towards wider cover

A risk may be insurable if the probability of its occurrence can be sufficiently accurately estimated on the basis of reliable statistics and intensive observation. Lastly, if a risk is to be insurable it must also be real, realisable, permissible and ethical/moral.

Until a few decades ago insurance was always based on a system of balancing the premiums payable to the insurance companies against the compensation payable to insured persons in the event of accidental or other damage, and most of the policies concluded, which were designed to cover the maximum number of cases, excluded risks that involved:

- extraordinary, exceptional causes;
- large sums of money to be paid in the event of damage or loss;
- unpredictable circumstances.

These were referred to as “disastrous/uninsurable risks”.

Over the last few years the concept of insurability has obviously radically changed.

Some risks were not originally regarded as disastrous but began to be seen as such when they became uninsurable; in 1919, for instance, some insurance companies made large profits from their policies “against the bombing of Paris”, as the damage caused both to persons and to property by “grosse Bertha” proved fairly limited. In 1945, on the other hand, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided a foretaste of the possible consequences for all insurance fields of a modern nuclear war…

However, some risks which used to be uninsurable are now insurable thanks to human progress and developments in the technological and insurance fields: for instance, hail and drought, which used to be considered disastrous, are now covered by insurance.

Again, a comparative disaster can arise out of the combined consequences of a risk which is not intrinsically very serious, eg a hailstorm damaging a large number of glass roofs and vehicles.

Lastly, how are we to classify damage caused by myxomatosis epizooties among rabbits or “mad cow disease” in cattle?

Lastly, a risk which at first sight seems uninsurable can often be insured where:

- the individual incidences taken in isolation are fairly confined in scope;
- the risks are sufficiently far apart to prevent any cumulative “domino effect”;
- even if the damage is enormous, it can be covered by the “technically mutual nature”
of the world (re)insurance market;
- the State(s) concerned is/are in a position to guarantee the insurers’ solvency.


What is certainly needed is better coordination between the different agencies involved and ideally at national level, a single multidisciplinary agency.

This is not without its difficulties.

For example, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture stated in its report on flood prevention and coastal protection that in the absence of a national strategy for integrated management of the coast there was a major risk of further lives, property and investments being threatened because of the piecemeal approach to these issues (July 1998).
(Ref X).

Equally, in France, there are difficulties.

The “Mission-Tempêtes”, has found co-ordination of aid between the département and central government levels inadequate. The Operation Centre for Assistance to Decision-making (COAD) in the Directorate of Civil Defence and Security, is the nerve centre of operations and is obliged to manage simultaneously and under emergency conditions all requests from the prefects of 70 départements, with the risk of saturation.

Another difficulty is command of operations on the ground "with joint intervention by agents who differ in status and background, belonging to vertical organisations without horizontal links, each speaking his own language.

This situation has resulted in a proliferation of centres of decision with slackness in the transmission of orders or sometimes even counter-orders.

In disasters of such magnitude, the establishment of a single authority should be considered."
(Ref Y)

Equally, at inter-département level, there are difficulties. "The Protection Zones (extended regions) seem the ideal interface for civilian-military co-operation, but their contribution to crisis management has not been altogether satisfactory. The reasons are firstly that co-operation habits have not yet taken root; secondly, many Zones do not have their own operational resources; lastly, there is not yet any real zone-based planning.
(Ref Z)

At local level, matters seem to be more satisfactory. "The Centres communaux de Première Intervention (CPI- municipal early intervention centres) have demonstrated their irreplaceable character thanks to the rapid mobilisation of their staff who are fitted to apply early preservation measures."


It is evident that different levels of territorial administration and specialised agencies should have sufficient resources in terms of finance and manpower to enable them to respond adequately to the challenges of disasters and emergencies.

It is equally important that up-to-date legislation be adopted to enable public administration to take whatever steps are required to safeguard the assets of a community and its people.


As always, the CLRAE appeals to national associations of local authorities and appropriate specialised agencies to assist in the distribution of this Resolution to its members; encourage the organisation of meetings and events to give this challenge for local governments greater visibility; to assist the CLRAE in any follow-up which may be given to this Resolution.


The Rapporteurs feel that the current Resolution is a first step.

They propose that the CLRAE and, in particularly, its Committee on Sustainable Development prepares a guide or Manual for local authorities dealing with natural disasters and emergencies.

This Manual should bring together examples of good practice from a wide range of member countries and, if possible, produce policy guidelines using, where appropriate, the proposals contained in the current Resolution.

In this context, the Rapporteurs note with interest a handbook on technological accidents distributed by the United Nations Environment Programme and entitled APELL (Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level).

This UN handbook is intended to raise local authorities’ awareness of risks, to help them be more effective in preparing for and responding to emergency situations, particularly those caused by technological accidents. However, it excludes natural disasters.


The Rapporteurs would like to put on record its satisfaction at the way in which the organisation "Local Authorities Confronting Disasters and Emergencies (LACDE)" has cooperated with the CLRAE with which it has observer status.

The LACDE has a fund of expertise at its disposal from its members. It would be particularly useful in the preparation of the Manual described above under (38).


The Rapporteurs propose that the CLRAE in turn asks the Committee of Ministers to follow up the Resolution in two ways.

Firstly, to encourage member governments which have not yet done so to sign and ratify two Council of Europe Conventions - the Convention on Civil Liability for Damage Resulting from Activities Dangerous to the Environment (Lugano, 1993) and the Convention on the Protection of the Environment through Criminal Law (Strasbourg, 1998).

Secondly, to encourage the establishment of a European Observatory for the Prevention and management of Natural disasters and Emergencies.

In this latter respect, the Rapporteurs would wish to recall the recent Strasbourg (November 2001) and Montpellier (December 2001) Encounters, organised partly by the Council of Europe, where participants and experts working on the improvement of risk management and environmental safety agreed on the need for international pooling of modern information and communication technologies on risks.

Equally, the Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly, has taken the view that "a number of coherent measures ought to be adopted and enforced throughout Europe, both in order to prevent accidental pollution and so as to limit the negative effects of regular industrial, agricultural or domestic activities on the environment and human health."
(Ref. D)


Nothing stops the CLRAE from addressing directly the Commission of the European Union, via normal Council of Europe channels.

However, given that the European Union has an advisory body on local and regional authorities i.e., the Committee of Regions, with which the CLRAE has close contacts, it is more logical in the first place to make proposals to the European Union via the Committee of Regions.

Both the Commission and The European Parliament are working on questions relevant to the content of the current CLRAE Resolution. Specifically, reference is made to reducing risks for coastal areas arising from oil pollution but there are other EU proposals for reform.


A – Paul-Henri BOURRELIER; ingénieur général des mines, président ; Rapport de l’ Instance d’évaluation de la politique publique de prévention des risques naturels / La Gazette des communes / 2 mars 1998

B – Jean-Marc LAMERE; Délégué général adjoint; Direction " Assurances Biens et Responsabilité" de la FFSA ( Fédération Française des Sociétés d'Assurance); Revue "Risques" n° 42 / juin 2000

C – Patrick BIDAN; directeur de marché à la CCR ( Caisse Centrale de Réassurance); Revue "Risques" n° 42 / juin 2000

D – Rapport de l'Assemblée Parlementaire du Conseil de l'Europe – Doc révisé / 11 septembre 2000

E – Ministère de l'Aménagement du Territoire et de l'Environnement / Direction des études économiques et de l'évaluation environnementale / Recherche et Environnement: radioécologie et écotoxicologie / n° 8 / septembre 2000

F – Marcel PIQUEMAL, directeur des Programmes d’Etudes de l’ OMIPE = Observatoire des Missions Publiques en Europe; « la Précaution : Préface à un débat » (Accord EUR-OPA Risques Majeurs / Conseil de l’Europe / Strasbourg/ 23.10.01)

G – Robert MARTINE, journaliste; Une commune sur deux menacée / Les Echos / 11.12.2000

H – Olivier ELAMINE; Ernst & Young; Enquête du Ministère de l’Equipement sur les Risques Naturels : attentes des communes / Le Journal des Maires / Mai 2001

I . - Roland NUSSBAUM, directeur de la MRN = Mission des sociétés d’assurances (françaises) pour la connaissance et la prévention des Risques Naturels;
I . i - Revue « RISQUES » <[email protected]>
I . ii - Pour une géographie économique des risques naturels / Revue de géographie de Lyon /
Novembre 2000

J –Jacques MOUNIS; directeur général des services techniques de Nîmes; Nîmes prend ses dispositions / Géomètre / Février 2000

K - Jacques FAYE, responsable du Bureau de l’information et de la coordination interministérielle de la SDPRM = Sous-Direction de la Prévention des Risques Majeurs /Géomètre / février 2000);
« La SDPRM vise au développement d’une ‘culture du risque’ »

L – Annick CLEAC’H, maître de conférence de Géographie - Université de Bretagne occidentale, Brest; Arrêtons de faire l’autruche / Valeurs Actuelles / 11.01.2001 / Humbert Rambaud

M – Patrick BEZARD-FALGAS; géomètre; Simulation d’un remembrement-aménagement / Géomètre / février 2000

N – Claude MANDRAUT, journaliste; L’ Aquitaine restera marquée / La Gazette des Communes/ 25.12.2000

O – Frédéric MORTIER, responsable du chantier de la Reconstitution à l’ONF (Office National des Forêts); A l’heure des bilans, les leçons tirées / Le Progrès / 29.12.2001 / Bénédicte Georges

P – Philippe PARMENTIER, maire d’Ochey; La Lorraine se réorganise / La Gazette des Communes/ 25.12.2000 / Christiane de Dianous

Q – Stéphane CHIRON, développeur du site Médiaforest; Internet à la rescousse / La Gazette des Communes / 25.12.2000 / Gérard Ramirez Del Villar

R – Jean-Marie SCHLERET, président de l’Observatoire de la Sécurité Scolaire; Rapport annuel 2001

S – Jean-Michel CHANUT; Société du Canal de Provence; Le PPI du barrage de Bimont / La Lettre de l’IPGR / sept-déc 2000

T – Revue « Géomètre »; L’information préventive est obligatoire / fév2000

U – Henri BERTHIEUX; directeur du Service Interministériel de défense et de protection civile du Rhône/ Le Progrès

V – Anne LALO; maître de conférences; IUT (Institut Universitaire de Technologie) de Nice-Côte-d'Azur / Entretiens de Strasbourg

W – Serge MAGNAN; Président du CNPP = Centre National de Prévention et de Protection ; Solidarité et catastrophes naturelles / revue "Risques" / n° 42 / juin 2000

X – Derek WHITTAKER, membre du CPLRE; "Du côté des côtes" – la stratégie de la LGA" Commission du Développement Durable / 09.02.01

Y – Colonel Daniel ORY, président de la Fédération Nationale des Sapeurs-Pompiers de France (FNSPF); La Gazette des Communes / 25.12.20

Z – Gilles SANSON, président de la Mission interministérielle sur l’évaluation des dispositifs de secours et d’intervention mis en œuvre à l’occasion des Tempêtes des 26 et 27 décembre 1999 –
La Gazette des Communes / 25.12.2000 / Hélène Girard et Bruno Guentch