After the floods: bracing for what is next to come
Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, and Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action
Rising waters in Central Europe have broken centuries-old records for water levels in some of our major rivers. Nobody can fail to have been moved by the astonishing images created by this seemingly Biblical deluge, portrayals of epic damage but also of heroic resistance and fortitude.
Hundreds of thousands of rescuers have worked around the clock to save their communities. We who looked on with our hearts in our mouths probably have never before followed so closely the forecasts for when the surges in the Rivers Danube and Elbe would reach their peaks and begin to recede.
Flooding on this scale ignores national borders and risks overwhelming the capability of individual countries to cope on their own. Neighbours have helped neighbours - even as they have still been fighting floods at home. The European Commission's new Emergency Response Centre (ERC) monitored the evolution of this crisis every step of the way. It has kept up a continuous supply of satellite images of the floods development and real-time forecasts to assist national authorities to assess where help is most needed.
The 2013 floods have brought up memories from 2002 and are yet another wake up call for us in Europe about the impact of climate change. For centuries our rivers have been a source of prosperity, forging trade and travel links and offering prime location for our best cities. And yet, every so often their waters would flood the land surrounding them, take lives and cause misery. The magnitude of these floods and their frequency is increasing with climate change, placing more people and more property at risk. They cause billions of euros in damages and account for more than half of all losses from natural disasters.
This most expensive tax we pay to Mother Nature will only increase. Europe is warming faster than many other parts of the world. In the last decade the European land temperature has on average crept 1.3°C higher than in the pre-industrial era, compared with a global average rise of 0.8°C.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international scientific body studying this phenomenon, predicts a significant increase in extreme weather. For Europe this means more floods, storms, summer heat waves and forest fires. And this also means that it is no longer possible for us to just brace for the next floods to come. Prevention, preparedness and collective response, with the whole force of all of us in Europe acting together - is the path we must take and the path we have chosen.
There are three priorities we must embrace. First, Europe must remain on the forefront of the fight against climate change. Cutting the world's greenhouse gas emissions must remain our top priority in order to keep global warming below 2°C.
But even if we succeed to do so, we can no longer avoid the adverse impacts of a changing climate. Thus, our second step must be to adapt to it. This is one of the most fundamental challenges for territorial development in Europe. In April the Commission presented a strategy to help decision-makers in Europe choose the best adaptation solutions to the benefit of their citizens. We must act faster, smarter and more efficiently.
Third, we must strengthen disaster management at the European level. The Commission has already proposed new legislation in this area. One major initiative will be the creation of a voluntary pool of national assets – such as heavy duty pumping equipment - that will be placed on standby ready for immediate deployment in a collective European response. But solidarity needs to be balanced with responsibility and the legislation also creates a requirement for EU Member States to prepare and to share risk assessments, and to strengthen ongoing work in the field of exercises, training, exchange of experts.
EU funds are also available for disaster risk reduction for floods, but also forest fires, earthquakes and landslides. Some €5.6 billion is being deployed under the current EU budget, and much more could be funded over the next seven years. These measures bring results - while it has been bad in much of Central Europe these past days, the region was better prepared than in 2002.
The risks we face are growing but we are not helpless. If we act decisively and act together we can weather the storms to come.