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The European Commission adopted this week two communications related to disasters: an EU approach to reducing the impact of natural and man-made disasters within the EU, and a strategy for supporting disaster risk reduction in developing countries.
Between 1990 and 2007 the European Union witnessed a marked increase in the number and severity of both natural and man-made disasters, with a particularly significant increase in the former. The loss of human life, the destruction of economic and social infrastructure and the degradation of already fragile ecosystems is expected to worsen as climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of extreme meteorological events, such as heat waves, storms and heavy rains. Analyses carried out by the UN and other international organizations have highlighted a growing vulnerability to disasters, partly as a consequence of increasingly intensive land use, industrial development, urban expansion and infrastructure construction.
The economic cost of disasters in Europe is estimated to be â‚¬15 billion. Disasters hit developing countries hardest, as they are the most vulnerable and have the least capacity to cope. They also undermine and jeopardize the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight goals include the target to halve the proportion of people living on less than one US dollar a day and get every child primary education by 2015.
The European Union has already developed a set of instruments to address various aspects of disaster preparedness, response and recovery. There are also a number of sector-specific initiatives covering floods, technological disasters, and oil spills which deal with elements of disaster prevention. There is, however, no strategic approach, at the Community level, for disaster prevention.
There are a number of reasons why disaster prevention needs to be considered at the European level. Most obviously, disasters do not respect national borders and can have a transnational dimension (as was the case with the 2002 floods and the 2007 forest fires). Disasters can have a negative impact on existing Community policies such as agriculture and infrastructure. The economic impacts of disasters may adversely affect the economic growth and competitiveness of EU regions (and hence the EU as a whole). Finally, Community funding is often required to deal with the aftermath of disasters.
The communications adopted this week represent a first attempt to establish a more strategic approach to disaster prevention. Proposed action at the European level focuses on areas where a common approach is more effective than separate national approaches, such as developing knowledge, linking parties and policies, and improving the performance of existing European disaster prevention instruments.
The prevention communication identifies areas where action at the EU level could provide added value. These include: establishing a Community-level inventory of existing information and best practices; developing guidelines on hazard and risk mapping; linking parties and policies throughout the disaster management cycle with more training and awareness-raising; improved access to early warning systems, and more efficient targeting of community funds.Available data on disasters is currently limited and suffers from a lack of comparability: several criteria are used, such as the number of victims, the amount of damage, the number of events occurring in a given period. Data on the physical and economic impacts of disasters remains indicative at best.
The Commission hopes to develop a comprehensive inventory of existing sources of information related to disasters. This could make it possible to identify comparability issues as well as information gaps. It could also provide the basis for assessing how to better share information within the EU. Information on the economic impacts of disasters is particularly important since it can allow policy makers to properly assess the costs and benefits of different disaster prevention measures.
The author is the head of the International Department at GSCB Law Firm.