What risk do you take in life

At your own risk - live with natural hazards

Whether in Houston or Bondo: The number of people living under natural hazards is growing all over the world. They often have no other choice or they rely on technology to protect them. And they are good at suppressing.

We remember “Allison”, “Ike”, “Sandy” and of course “Katrina”. In addition, countless nameless storms break in the United States every year. Houses in Houston have been flooded 26 times since the mid-1970s. The worst storms include those of 2015 and 2016. The city is now hit hard for the third time in a row. Hurricane Harvey will not be forgotten either.

"One should get rid of the idea that people calculate the risk of a catastrophe like statisticians."

Experiencing a year without a flood is more of an exception in Houston. The region is shown in red on every hazard map. After the last few days you ask yourself again: Why don't people move away? Or better: why are they moving there? Houston's population is growing rapidly.

“One should get rid of the idea that people calculate the risk of a disaster like statisticians,” says Martin Voss, head of the disaster research center at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Berlin.

"This is perhaps how insurance experts work, but not people who are exposed to many dangers in their everyday lives." Anyone who moves because of a new job or relationship acts out of motives that are currently important to them: "The flood risk, even if it is known, takes a back seat."

Displacement is one of our core competencies. Worldwide, the number of people living in danger zones is growing faster than the population. This is also due to the fact that the big cities are still getting bigger and are often located in endangered coastal regions.

The residents of Houston are by no means alone with their apparent fatalism. Today 2.7 billion are threatened by earthquakes.

Even if climate change may play a role in the recent freak weather; Ultimately, it is the fact that people move where there is danger that leads to more natural disasters. Because a storm is not yet a catastrophe. Only when it hits settlements does it become a disaster. Or as a German geoscientist said after a strong earthquake in Antarctica: "It probably tore thousands of penguins off their feet - it was not a catastrophe for humans."

The residents of Houston are by no means alone with their apparent fatalism. According to an EU study, the number of people affected by natural disasters doubled between 1975 and 2015.

Today 2.7 billion people are threatened by earthquakes, 400 million live in the vicinity of an active volcano, 1 billion live in potential floodplains, 800 million of them in Asia alone. While “Harvey” dominated the headlines, this week the monsoons in India, Bangladesh and Nepal claimed over 2,100 deaths.

It is particularly easy for us to suppress risks that we cannot counteract anyway. Newspapers report on natural disasters, but unless you have experienced it yourself, there is no urgency to act. Statisticians calculate that a storm only occurs every 100 or even 1000 years.

But people can't do much with probability calculations. If they survive a so-called flood of the century, they assume that they will have peace for 100 years - which is not true, because the term only describes the strength of the event, not its frequency.

That is one of the reasons why those affected rebuild their house after an accident. On the Elbe, for example, people only moved away when the flood came in 2013 for the second time since 2002 with full force.

When people still believed that God determined their fate, it was easier. The term risk came up in the 14th and 15th centuries when merchants and seafarers began to debate whether one could take the dangers of a particular voyage.

"But religious and magical factors still play a role today," explains Voss. An actuary firmly believes in calculating the true, objective risk of disaster and expects everyone to act according to his truth. “It's a form of belief. Our social system could not function without him. "

But for the individual, statistics do not express any relevant risk, says the sociologist: “People tend to assume that they are not affected themselves. Even if the tide should approach, many consider themselves strong enough to bring the family to safety and to carry the furniture out in good time. "

The short answer to why people expose themselves to danger is because they are poor. They are moving there because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. Only in rare cases are they particularly rich, like those who have supposedly built a safe house in Silicon Valley or Hollywood, although it is considered certain that a major quake will occur on the west coast of the USA in the next few years.

In addition, dangerous locations are often attractive. There are fertile soils around volcanoes. Cities have always been built on coasts and rivers. People settle there because they can find work, for example in agriculture and tourism.

Families who have lived in the same place for generations stay - even if new discoveries emerge, as recently in Naples. According to a study, the risk of volcanoes is worse than feared.

Tourist destinations such as Vesuvius in particular show how irrational our handling of risks is. Millions of vacationers climb volcanoes and marvel at the locals who live there - as if the eruption might not happen at this very moment.

Switzerland, too, has had to learn to live with the risks posed by its mountains and waters. And here, too, the limits of what is feasible become apparent.

Typologies are tricky. But there is no doubt that the Japanese are doing more than anyone else to rebel against the constant threat of earthquakes. Particularly stable buildings and a lot of technology are supposed to protect the population - which cannot always be successful, as was shown in Kobe in 1995 and in Fukushima in 2011.

The University of the United Nations regularly creates a risk map of the world with the dangers of earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and rising sea levels. It also takes into account how well a country can protect itself and react to a disaster. According to the UN, Japan can reduce its vulnerability thanks to enormous effort. But the risk remains very high.

Switzerland, too, has had to learn to live with the risks posed by its mountains and waters. And here, too, the limits of what is feasible are shown again and again. During the great flood in 1987, the protective structures, which should actually have prevented worse things, caused damage of CHF 300 million. Buildings and dams did not hold up.

"A paradigm shift in dealing with natural hazards became necessary," remembers Hans Peter Willi, who until 2016 was responsible for hazard prevention at the Federal Office for the Environment. From then on, settlements were protected better than agricultural areas.

At that time one also began to record all dangers by means of maps. Today practically every municipality knows where floods, debris flows or avalanches are threatened. Construction is not permitted in red zones, and only with conditions in blue zones.

The cards are not enough, says Willi, you now have to decide whether you can accept the remaining risks or whether evacuation plans and protective structures are necessary. In some areas, however, the effort is simply too great, explains Willi, then there is only one relocation of those affected: “There can always be an even more extreme event. Sometimes people have to accept that nature is stronger - and withdraw. "

Mountains that are monitored by radar, early warning systems, danger zones - this ensures a deceptive security, as Bondo has shown. The place in Bergell lies in an alluvial cone. What comes down from the mountain pushes towards the village. That is why in 2011 we invested in all kinds of protective measures - and felt safe.

It is called the levee paradox. For centuries, coastal residents lost their lives in storms. Eventually they learned to protect themselves with dikes. They regained confidence and built new, larger settlements behind the dike. But with the next flood, which was stronger than any before, the dike broke - and the damage was all the greater.

To understand the people of Houston, it helps to think of a meteorite. It can hit any point on earth and kill millions of people. Everyone knows, nobody does anything - because there is nothing to be done.

The dangers of nature

People lost their lives in a total of 191 natural disasters in 2016. According to Swiss Re, the storm “Matthew” in Haiti and an earthquake in Ecuador claimed the most victims.

$ 175 billion
reached the total losses of all natural disasters in 2016. Of this 54 billion dollars was covered by insurance.

17 %
The proportion of houses insured against flood damage is said to be that low in some districts of Houston. How high the damage from "Harvey" will be is open.

of 171 countries: Switzerland ranks at this rank in the world
UN Risk Index. This makes the country very safe. It is most dangerous in Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific. The Philippines, Japan, Bangladesh and Chile, among others, are also at risk.

People died in Switzerland from 1946 to 2015
Natural hazards. The most common causes were avalanches (378 victims), lightning strikes (164), floods (124), storms (105), rockfalls (85) and landslides (74).