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Climate Emergency: Is Europe Ready to Deal with Natural Disasters?

Natural disasters
The European Civil Protection Mechanism has been operating since 2001. Credit: Christian Jepsen / European Commission

Natural disasters — including deadly heatwaves, wildfires, and flash floods — are becoming more common than ever, in Europe and all around the world.

Europe and the rest of the world have been facing some of the worst natural disasters recently, as their frequency and intensity have been on the rise for years due to climate change.

Is Europe ready to cope with such a turbulent environment? Does the European Union and its member states have the capacity to deal with unprecedented situations that are impossible to predict and very difficult to deal with?

These are legitimate questions as people in Europe have suffered tremendously this year, not only from the coronavirus pandemic, but also the deadly floods of Central Europe earlier this summer and the various forest fires that have burned thousands of square meters of forests across the continent.

How does Europe respond to natural disasters?

For more than 20 years now, the European Civil Protection Mechanism has been trying to coordinate emergency responses across the EU when a member state needs help due to a natural disaster or an emergency.

What is even more surprising is that any nation on earth can ask the European Civil Protection Mechanism for assistance — something that has happened more than 100 times in the last two decades, according to the European Commission.

For example, the EU has responded to the recent explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, floods in Ukraine, Niger, and Sudan, as well as tropical cyclones in Latin America and Asia.

When the scale of an emergency or a disaster overwhelms any country, and its own means are not enough to respond, it can request assistance via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

Once activated, the EU channels through the Emergency Response Coordination Centre the offers of assistance made available by its member states.

Greece, for example, has asked for assistance in the past to deal with forest fires, something that other countries of the EU, such as Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, and Italy, have also done in the past.

It normally takes a few hours from the activation of the request for neighboring nations to assist each other.

This, however, brings into our minds a crucial question: What happens when more than one EU member state faces the same disaster and cannot assist its neighbors?

The ”rescEU” scheme

In 2019, following the devastating fires in Mati, Attica, where 102 people tragically died, the EU reinforced and strengthened some of the most crucial components of its disaster risk management policy.

Under the new rules, the EU itself can now have a European reserve of additional capacities, including firefighting planes and helicopters, medical evacuation aircraft, and a stockpile of medical equipment and field hospitals, called “RescEU reserve.”

To put it in American terms, this new scheme could be described as Europe’s ”federal” reserve, which is ready to assist individual member states.

Up until now, it was member states that helped each other, under the coordination of Brussels. Now Brussels can also step up and help an EU nation in need by deploying necessary personnel and equipment without asking other member states to assist.

As the European Commission describes it, ”extreme weather conditions and emerging threats, such as the coronavirus, have overwhelmed the ability of Member States to help each other, especially when several countries face the same type of disaster simultaneously. In such cases, when Member States are unable to assist each other due to the high risks faced by each country, the EU provides an extra layer of protection,” the Commission stated in April.

”Through the rescEU reserve, the EU ensures a faster and more comprehensive response,” it added.

Forest fires are a major threat to Europe

For the 2021 forest fire season, the European Commission co-financed the stand-by availability of a rescEU firefighting fleet to address potential shortcomings in responding to forest fires.

Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Sweden helped Brussels, assembling 11 firefighting aircraft and six helicopters at the disposal of other EU Member States in case of an emergency in exchange for a financial contribution to the standby costs of these capacities.

We might still be in the middle of the Summer, but Europe has had a series of devastating forest fires already.

In May 2021, wildfires in Attica, Greece prompted the evacuation of several villages and monasteries, as the fires spread throughout the Gerania mountain range.

In July, a huge wildfire spread through Limassol, Cyprus, killing four people and forcing the evacuation of several villages. This was described as the worst wildfire in the country’s history.

Eight people have also died in Turkey recently, as the wildfires that spread a few days ago to its southern shores, burning down thousands of hectares of forests, as well as houses and businesses alike.

All these events bring to mind a very crucial realization: Nature will always be stronger than humankind. This is why cooperation and solidarity will be much needed in the coming years, as climate change and its consequences are being made apparent across the globe.

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