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Can France Weather the Storms?

Wednesday 01 September 2010

A recent French parliamentary report argues that France is ill-prepared to deal with climate change and severe storms.

It has been a rollercoaster year in France for weather conditions and storm damage.

  • In February, parts of the Vendee and Charente-Maritime were devastated following the passage of the storm Xynthia, which killed 51 people and destroyed or severely damaged around 1500 homes.
  • In May, another climatic disaster occurred on the Cote d’Azur, a few days before the Cannes film festival, when waves up to six metres high struck the Riveria coast, causing extensive damage but no casualties.
  • In June, the Draguignan area of the Var was also devastated by heavy flooding, making 283 families homeless, and causing damage to property and infrastructure estimated by the local prefet to be around €1 billion.

The storms and the damage have left many commentators feeling that the country is ill prepared for the climatic changes now taking place, and that lessons must now be learned to avoid or least reduce the severity of such disasters in the future.

So it was with interest that a recent parliamentary report by two French senators, Bruno Retailleau and Alain Anziani, argued that the floods could indeed have been prevented, or at least better controlled.

In a hard hitting report submitted to the French Assembly they propose 92 measures to develop a higher culture of risk management in the country.

A number of the important proposals echo those demanded by President Sarkozy following storm Xynthia and a large number of the recommendations have already been accepted by the government.

The report by the senators considers two main issues: the need to toughen planning regulations and the need to improve sea defences.

Planning System

The senators consider that the current system of local council risk prevention plans (Plans de Prévention des Risques) are not strong enough, and do not take enough account of climate change.

It is clear they consider that local councils are far too tempted to play down the risks that are present in order that it does not become too great an obstacle to new development in their communes.

They criticise the weakness of the supervision by local prefectures of these plans and of planning consents granted by local councils.

The system of 'implicit consent' that is currently part of the planning system in France, they argue, should be abolished, so that all planning applications should be either formally approved or rejected.

They propose that the whole of the country should be meticulously surveyed to map out the level of risk within each area, and that within designated red zones no construction whatsoever should be permitted.

They also propose that a new body be created with specific responsibility for assessing the level of risk in coastal areas and in natural parks and other protected zones.

Sea Defences

The senators claim that two thirds of the communes in France are at risk of flooding, although only partially so in most cases.

The report recommends that a national plan of action be established for the reinforcement of existing sea defences, the costs of which are estimated at around €4 billion. Half of the funding for such a programme would come from central government.

In order to ensure that there was ongoing funding for repair and renewal work to sea defences the report also proposes that taxes that are imposed on planning permissions be varied to take account of the level of risk in each area, with specific amounts set aside for sea defences.

The report also argues that there must be much greater public education of potential risks, the need for evacuation exercised to be undertaken, as well as a better system of alert to the public.

In response to the report, the government has announced that a programme of improvement of sea defences for 1200 kilometres of the coastline will take place between 2011 and 2016, although the full details of just how it will be financed have yet to be made clear.

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