Mitholz: How does the clearing of the former ammunition depot affect the residents of the village?

The village of Mitholz, with the rock face containing the ammunition depot in the background. Photo: Marianne Schmid

Starting in 2030 or even earlier, part of the population of Mitholz, a village in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, will be relocated for an expected ten years. The reason is hidden behind a rock face right next to the village: it contains an estimated 3,500 tonnes of old ammunition that needs to be removed.

The depot was built during the Second World War. In 1947, a large part of the approximately 7,000 tonnes of ammunition stored in the mountain exploded. The rock face collapsed, destroying the village and killing nine people. In 2018, expert reports revealed a risk of further explosions. To ensure the safety of about 150 inhabitants and the important transalpine transit route through the Lötschberg, the area has to be evacuated during the remediation – an enormous and unprecedented undertaking.

The village of Mitholz after the disaster of 1947. Source: Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport DDPS

Comprehensive clearing of ammunition remnants across the entire valley floor is intended to lay the foundations for a safe and attractive future in Mitholz. But the remediation poses substantial challenges for the local population and the municipality. Therefore, the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport DDPS, which is in charge of the remediation, has defined a number of social objectives. It aims to

  • ensure that the quality of life in Mitholz is no longer impaired by the former ammunition depot once the depot has been cleared;
  • create conditions that make living and working in Mitholz possible and attractive again; and
  • strengthen the confidence of the affected population and the general public in the authorities’ capabilities.

Monitoring from a social science perspective

In order to measure achievement of these goals, the DDPS has commissioned CDE to monitor relevant aspects throughout the entire duration of the remediation. With this research project, CDE is accompanying the remediation from a social science perspective and examining questions related to quality of life and residents’ attachment to their home village.

In a first step, the researchers are conducting a survey among the residents by means of face-to-face interviews. The municipality of Kandergrund, to which Mitholz belongs, and the residents’ association, IG Mitholz, are supporting them in contacting people.

The research results will provide a basis for monitoring achievement of the remediation’s social objectives. At the same time, the findings will help the community authorities answer key questions around the impacts of the remediation on community life in the village.

From a scientific point of view, the clearing of the ammunition depot and the associated relocation of residents represent a unique situation in Switzerland. On the one hand, the relocation is temporary, offering those affected the possibility to return. In many other cases – for example those related to brown coal mining in Germany – there is no such possibility. Because of its temporary nature, the relocation in Mitholz also raises questions related to the reoccupation and the future of the village. On the other hand, climate change will magnify natural hazards such as rockfalls and debris flows, affecting Swiss mountain areas. This may make it increasingly necessary to consider relocation as a potential measure of disaster risk management.

In this context, insights from the relocation in Mitholz can provide an important basis for planning future relocations.

Mitholz – ein Bergdorf im Scheinwerferlicht

An der Veranstaltung «Mitholz – ein Bergdorf im Scheinwerferlicht» gab CDE-Wissenschaftlerin Astrid Wallner am 24. Januar 2023 Einblick in die sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung bei der Räumung des ehemaligen Munitionsdepots. Sie hielt auch fest, dass das Interesse der Forschung über Mitholz hinausgehe. «Es ist davon auszugehen, dass Naturereignisse infolge vom Klimawandel zunehmen und dass es vermehrt zu Umsiedlungen kommt. Gerade Bergregionen sind davon stark betroffen.»
Date: 27.1.2023 | Source: Frutigländer (Abo)