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Severe cold tests Europe's civil protection capacities

A woman walks during a heavy snowfall in central Sofia on February 5, 2012 © AFP Photo/ Dimitar Dilkoff
06/02/2012  - 

Wide parts of Europe are suffering extreme cold, which is putting a huge strain on national civil protection capacities. As of today, about 360 people have died from hypothermia and thousands have been hospitalised. The majority of victims are in Ukraine (131 dead), Poland (53 dead) and Romania (34 dead). Hundreds of thousands of people across the continent have been left without water, gas and electricity.

An emergency has been declared in several countries – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland and Romania.

The cold has caused several serious incidents – on Saturday, water pipes burst in eastern Slovakia, leaving 14 000 people without drinking water. On Monday, torrential rains and melting snow broke a dam wall in Bulgaria; the resulting flood caused the evacuation of hundreds of people and damaged several villages.

The wide-spread emergency is testing national response systems and is making the mobilisation of potential assistance challenging. But European solidarity is holding strong. The Monitoring and Information Centre at the European Commission is closely following the evolution of the extreme weather and is in regular contact with the national authorities.

If the European Civil Protection Mechanism is activated, the Monitoring and Information Centre can facilitate the provision of civil protection assistance (tents, blankets, heaters, etc). It can also deploy an EU civil protection team with specific expertise. Together with the Joint Research Centre, the Commission can provide forecasts for the weather and water discharge of the main European rivers.

Where appropriate, the Commission can deploy the Preparatory Action Cold Conditions civil protection module. Managed by Finland, the module can perform search and rescue operations and give technical support to civil protection teams deployed in cold conditions.

The Commission can also co-finance the transportation of assistance.

The Civil Protection Mechanism has been activated in extreme winter conditions before – though under very different circumstances. In January 2010 the United Kingdom and the Netherlands suffered heavy snowfalls and requested road salt for unblocking motorways.