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The Tous dam disaster of 1982 and the origins of integrated flood risk management in Spain


The failure of the Tous dam in 1982 caused one of the most important socio-natural disasters in Spain during the twentieth century. That event triggered a paradigm change in the way disaster risks were perceived and managed, not only locally, but also at multiple levels of governance. Fifteen interviews with relevant stakeholders, content analysis of scientific literature, and review of historical and media accounts indicate that the collapse of the Tous dam had the two major effects. First, it prompted a process of institutional development, which led to the growth, and increase in complexity of the organizations involved both in vertical and horizontal communication of disaster risk reduction. Second, actions taken and experiences gained in dealing with disaster risk reduction in the Tous area were used as a benchmark to develop new strategies, as well as new mechanisms for communication and planning in other territories and other risk domains in Spain. This paper also identified the three main stages in the evolution of disaster risk reduction planning in the area: (1) After the collapse of the Tous dam, disaster risk reduction strategies in Spain focused on improving preparedness in order to reduce short-term risks. (2) Disaster management in the 1990s was strongly influenced by international initiatives, which emphasized the contextualization of risk and the importance in long-term disaster risk reduction measures such as land-use planning. (3) The European Water Framework Directive (2000) and, more recently, the Floods Directive (2007) are exerting a strong influence on the development of a new Spanish flood policy that focuses on preventive measures. However, this process is far from complete and many issues still remain unresolved: dealing with different domains of risk action, integrating concepts of ecological resilience and climate change, and promoting public awareness and effective participation.

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  1. The “cut off low” is a rapid up-swelling of very cold air in the upper layers of the atmosphere. By itself this phenomenon doesn’t cause heavy rains. However, in late summer and autumn, when the temperature in the Mediterranean is higher, warm and wet air from the sea ascend at high altitudes in the atmosphere. If another mass of clouds in condensation brings the warm air inland, the contact between the two air masses, the cold and the warm, can generate an important vertical atmospheric instability causing torrential rains. (Díez 1992; Segura 2000).

  2. Vega de Tera dam broke the 9 of January 1959 due to deficient materials used in construction. In a village of 500 people 144 died, and only 28 corpses were found (Morales and Ortega 2002; Duque 2011). The opacity of the judicial process supported by Franco regime made the compensations ridiculous. The criminal proceedings against 10 people ended with 4 sentences to 1 year in prison, with 2 acquitted by the High Court and 2 reprieved by the regime.

  3. Since the end of the Cold War, the focus of civil defence shifted from military attack to emergencies and disaster management in general (Alexander 2002). While the term civil protection has been widely used to replace civil defence within the Europe, emergency management or disaster management are some of a number of terms, which, since the end of the Cold War, had largely replaced civil defence in the US.


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Correspondence to Anna Serra-Llobet.

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Serra-Llobet, A., Tàbara, J.D. & Sauri, D. The Tous dam disaster of 1982 and the origins of integrated flood risk management in Spain. Nat Hazards 65, 1981–1998 (2013).

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  • Disaster risk reduction (DRR)
  • Risk communication
  • Tous dam
  • Disaster risk management