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Vol. 8, No. 4 October-December 2002

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Community-based Action Plan for Disaster Reduction: The Experience of Chamonix

Located in the western Alps, Chamonix is a famous and busy ski resort. At the bottom of Mont Blanc (altitude 4,810 m), the valley of Chamonix is highly exposed to avalanches: there are over one hundred avalanche corridors. Despite preventive policies, avalanches are still potential threats for people, buildings and equipment. Aware of the danger, the municipality of Chamonix has developed a community-based action plan for disaster reduction.

The French administration puts emphasis on natural hazards mapping, risk zoning and warning systems. During the 70s, avalanche mapping was systematized. Then, risk zoning was progessively integrated into urban planning to avoid the construction of settlements and infrastructure in the most dangerous areas and to mitigate potential damage in exposed ones. However, mapping and zoning are mainly based on ancient records and thus depend on data availability, quality and treatment. Knowledge of avalanches should therefore be considered with caution: phenomena from the past are sometimes unknown; at the same time new unforeseen ones can take place in the future.

Considering the climatic components of avalanches, weather forecasts play a major role in the protection of lives and property. During the snowy season, regional meteorological services give daily snow reports mentioning an estimate of avalanche risk from the European Avalanche Scale. In case of extreme and generalized risk (usually grade 5), when avalanches can flow down even gentle slopes and jeopardize human lives and activities, a warning system involving authorities and rescue services is put into action. Nevertheless, these proceedings are sometimes inadequate. The forecasting and warning index is generally applied to the scale of a mountain massif, but avalanches are localized and the level of risk can be widely different from one site to another.

Soon after the avalanche of Val d'Isere (French Alps) that crashed through a youth hostel killing 39 people, in 1970 the municipality of Chamonix established an informal discussion group as a local Safety Commission. The awarness of the local government was raised by this disaster since Val d'Isère was quite similar to Chamonix. The growth of winter sport resorts has resulted in an increasing density of settlements in avalanche-prone areas. Furthermore, the most critical period for avalanche risk often corresponds to the busiest one commercially.

To cope with this situation, the Safety Commission of Chamonix gathers local actors such as deputy mayors, representatives of the meteorological department, railways, police, army and fire fighting departments, and mountain professionals (ski instructors and guides). All of these participants are frequently confronted with natural hazards, especially avalanches. By sharing their practical knowledge and empirical observations, they help to have a more accurate estimation of snow instability and identify potentially dangerous places. When required, the Safety Commission produces recommendations, such as the closing of roads or evacuation, which are forwarded to the Mayor of Chamonix. In most cases, they are confirmed and taken into account in disaster management planning. The participation in the Safety Commission is voluntary but the recommendation-making process is based on principles of collective accountability and mutual commitment. This is considered an essential condition for taking decisions that might have heavy consequences and implicate the responsibility of those involved.

This experience of a community-based action plan for disaster reduction is even more significant, being one of a kind in France. Despite the fact that the French administration is traditionally marked by centralism, the Chamonix local government manages to make the issue of natural hazards a community one, by using traditional mountain knowledge and calling on the capacities of local actors.

Nadine Georgel is at the Pierre Mendes-France University, Grenoble, France, and can be contacted at


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