Europe to beef up response to natural disasters

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With natural disasters on the rise on a global scale but also in Europe, the European Commission presented plans yesterday (26 October) to reinforce the Union's capacity to respond to civil protection and humanitarian crises.

Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, said the plans would allow the EU to tap immediately into the disaster response capacities that member countries put at its disposal.

At present, when disasters occur, the Commission asks EU capitals what capacities they would be ready to set aside, and then waits for their response.

Under the proposed new system, a European Emergency Response Capacity would be set up, based on the existing expertise and assets of EU member states. Secondly, a European Emergency Response Centre is envisaged for more effective EU coordination whenever disasters strike.

Georgieva explained that the centre is based on existing Commission structures and would not result in an increase of bureaucracy. As for costs, she said that at this stage, it was difficult to forecast the related expenditure.

The proposals would eventually lead to a legislative act next year, Georgieva said.

Over the last 35 years, the frequency of natural disasters had increased five-fold and the damaged caused had multiplied seven or eight times, amounting to 70 billion euros on average, the commissioner said. The total average number of people affected by natural disasters stood at 230 million people, she added.

The European continent suffers primarily from floods, forest fires and peak temperatures in summer, and all these phenomena are recurring more often than ever before, Georgieva said.

Against a background of economic constraints following the crisis, European citizens were 90% in favour of better coordination of disaster response, aimed at both improving its impact and keeping costs low, she explained.

Georgieva insisted that streamlining the effort to address natural disasters would not reduce the responsibility of member states for civil protection.

"It is important to understand that what the Commission proposes does not erode the countries' national responsibilities," Georgieva said.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the cost-efficiency of the EU's current efforts, she indicated that in recent years, the EU has spent more than it had set aside for its disaster response budget, by making use of unspent funds.

In 2009, the EU provided humanitarian relief to 150 million people at a cost of one billion euros, she said. For the future, she said the EU should agree first on the kind of results it wants to achieve before considering how much money it is willing to allocate.

Asked about her future work, she said she wanted every euro spent to achieve the biggest impact, in close cooperation with Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Catherine Ashton's External Action Service.

"The instructions are very clear: we need to coordinate with our colleagues, with whom we can achieve more by spending less," she said.

She said she was investing a lot of hope in the EEAS, saying it would help achieve better coordination in international efforts, but part of her services would remain outside the service's scope as natural disasters sometimes strike inside Europe.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Red Cross/EU Office welcomed the Commission communication on 'Towards a stronger European disaster response: the role of civil protection and humanitarian assistance' and are "keen to engage in a concrete dialogue with the Commission on its implementation". 

"It is imperative that reinforcing the EU's disaster response capacity maintains the humanitarian space and its principles, as outlined in the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid," the organisations said.  

Matthias Schmale, under secretary-general for development at the IFRC, said: "Our view is that improved coordination will contribute to meeting the needs of populations affected in emergencies, by promoting complementary roles among the various actors involved in a response."

"Recent large-scale humanitarian response operations have been criticised for ineffective coordination. There is a growing perception that humanitarian agencies are slow to respond and unable to adequately cover all areas affected," Schmale said. 

"This perception is fuelling the entry of new disaster response actors whose mandates are not always derived from humanitarian values and principles; they ultimately place an additional burden on the humanitarian coordination system," he said.

"The IFRC and the Red Cross/EU Office do not perceive significant gaps in the current capacity of humanitarian actors to service relief needs in the areas of health, water, sanitation, shelter and livelihoods.

"As a consequence, the IFRC and the RC/EU Office are also firm about the need to undertake a comprehensive mapping of existing capacities and agree upon a common analysis of needs and gaps: this should be undertaken before the European Commission comes up with a fully-fledged legislative proposal to reinforce the EU's disaster response capacity in order to avoid duplication and the potential creation of a parallel system," said Ulrich Cronenberg, acting director of the Red Cross/EU Office.

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