Kristalina Georgieva is the European Commissioner responsible for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. She spoke in Rome to EurActiv Italy.
The Italian civil protection is considered a 'best practice' in the European Union and has often intervened to aid other countries as well. Recently, however, the emergency caused by the harsh winter has brought some criticism and sparked attacks against it. Was there, in your judgement, lack of preparation and/or underestimation of the risk or rather lack of coordination at European level between civil protection and the different levels of administrative responsibility, given that the emergency has affected also the countries? Will the new legislation recently put in place in Italy affect its effectiveness?
Indeed, Italy is one of the European countries with very well developed civil protection system and a great tradition of European cooperation in disaster response. Please let me express our appreciation for Italy's consistent commitment and the solidarity it shows when its civil protection experts train, share knowledge with, or work with their partners from the other countries in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.
In the past few weeks, Europe has been gripped by a severely cold snap and heavy snowfall which challenged the civil protection authorities in several countries, not just Italy.
The lessons from this emergency have to be drawn at the regional, national and the European level, so that we can do better next time. I would say that better coordination is an obvious advantage in civil protection, where early warning, speed and joint work are essential. This is why we are working to improve cooperation in disaster response at the European level. I have recently proposed to our member states an update of our legislation and in the months to come I will work with the national authorities to make this a reality.
Of course, emergencies like this remind us how crucial prevention is and how we should take the risks we face more seriously. In the last decade, a hundred thousand people have died in Europe as a result of natural disasters, and the damages from these disasters amount to billions of euros. These numbers, as well as the harsh winter we are experiencing now, are a clear sign that we need to plan better and manage more robustly the risks we face. This is another area in which we will work closely with our member states, in order to map the risks we face and make sure we are prepared for them.
From frost to thaw: towards the end of the month, increasing temperatures and the arrival of spring across Europe could start different emergencies but no less disastrous. Is it possible to prevent them, at least in part, by acting in advance at European, national, local level? What do you think you have to do to encourage coordination in this perspective?
Indeed, melting snow can cause extensive floods and damage. The Commission is well aware of the situation and its monitoring and information centre [MIC] has been active since the onset of the harsh winter conditions in Europe.
The MIC stands ready to assist any country in need as the weather gets warmer and the danger of floods becomes an immediate reality.
Good prevention measures and acting in good time can save lives and resources. This week the MIC will organise a teleconference with its participating members in order to share information about the situation on the ground. In order to react in time, the flood forecasting must be dealt with not only at national levels, but also in a way which brings together the communication systems of authorities in several countries; this is a unique capacity the MIC can offer in these real-time situations as disasters unfold.
The danger of flooding is also monitored through the European Flood Alert System (EFAS), which has been developed by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. EFAS increases preparedness for floods by providing warnings up to 10 days in advance. The information is designed to be complementary to national flood forecasting information and is distributed by the EFAS partner network twice a day.
The participating members and the European Commission are committed to developing and sharing their risk assessments so that countries have a global overview of the risks and are prepared in advance to cope with them. Nevertheless various actions to minimise the impact of disasters remain first and foremost a national responsibility.
Regional funds will be increasingly orientated towards initiatives that increase awareness and training and which will lead to disaster prevention and risk management becoming significant elements of countries' policies. This process will require some time and continuous support from policymakers and the new legislation on the EU Civil Protection Mechanism is certainly an important part of this process to increase efforts in risk assessment and contingency planning.
You are in Italy to participate in an important meeting at the World Food Programme on Sahel. New funding and strengthening of cooperation between the EU and UN will be centre topics. What could you anticipate of that meeting and what is Italy's stake in the overall European commitment?
This is a gathering of the major players in the humanitarian sector; we will discuss how we can help the Sahel region where close to 12 million people are on the verge of a food crisis. The emergency is huge, as I saw myself during my trip to the region in January. And as always, hunger is particularly cruel to children, to pregnant and breast-feeding women.
Our assistance is needed now if we want to avoid another major hunger crisis in Africa, like the one which rages in Somalia and the region. But finding a solution requires a collective international effort. This is why we are gathering in Rome, to coordinate our efforts. I expect we will increase our response to this crisis, scaling up both our donations and our efforts.
The European Union is already helping generously. The European Commission has already committed to almost €275 million to mitigate the food crisis. This means we invest in food security and nutrition, helping people stay alive, helping babies to continue their healthy development, which could be permanently damaged by hunger. But we are talking about some of the world's poorest countries, where 300,000 children die due to malnutrition or related causes even in a 'non-crisis' year. So we are also investing in solutions to the structural problems that are holding back development in the Sahel countries.
So, Europe is a provider of generous aid, but also of smart aid, targeted both at the immediate priorities and at the long-term solutions. Italians are part of this response, as part of the European Union. I want to thank them for their commitment to help the victims of crises like the one in the Sahel. This commitment is even more impressive now when our citizens are experiencing economic hardship at home.
Two years ago, when another emergency was looming in the Sahel, we managed to contain it and to avoid a huge hunger crisis by acting early and generously. I am confident that, if acting together, we can do the same this time. I hope our discussions and decisions here in Rome will be a big step in this direction.