Blowing Hot and Cold: Natural Hazard Response in Europe

As Europe battles an unprecedented heatwave, Professor David Alexander underlines the importance of disaster preparedness, mitigation and response and argues there is still time to create a Europe that minimises suffering, rather than ignores it.

In Europe, as in the rest of the world, public debate is a seasonal affair. I write this in an ambient temperature of 40 degrees Celsius and, naturally, the talk is all about heatwaves and their consequences. Thousands of firefighters are battling wildfires all over Europe, including in Britain. Mortuaries are being readied for large numbers of excess deaths provoked by the hot conditions. Transport systems have succumbed to buckled rails, melted tarmac and soft runways. Rivers have run dry, crops have wilted, water is being rationed. No doubt in a few months’ time the talk will be all about how to save people from ice, snow and freezing conditions. In between we will have debates about storms, deluges, floods and flash floods. When climate becomes extreme, drought and floods tend to alternate, as many citizens of low latitudes know only too well.

Europe is in turmoil. Natural hazard impacts overlay onto the effects of war and the pandemic. The lessons of recovery from the latter have been learned the hard way, by improvising rather than exercising foresight. The result is a mismatch between demand and supply that has driven up inflation and increased social tension. The weaponisation of food and energy supply is–at least so far–the most insidious consequence of the Ukraine war. Increases in military spending eat up financial reserves already depleted by the huge drops in productivity during the pandemic period and the enormous demands upon welfare.

Despite this very inauspicious alignment of the stars, there are solutions and there is no need to give way to abject gloom and anxiety. The key to the natural hazard problem lies in political decisions about preparedness. There is no doubt that European homes need more insulation, more weather-proofing, more flood barriers, more anti-seismic reinforcement. Some simply need to be abandoned because they stand in the path of future floods, coastal erosion or subsidence phenomena. Tackling such problems should be on the long-term agenda for every country in Europe. Prevention and mitigation are elements of foresight, which is the vital ingredient if we are to get to grips with climate change and the new environmental circumstances throughout the continent.

Despite the need to emphasise preparedness and mitigation, emergency response cannot be neglected. It is clear that one of its principal aspects in the Europe of the future will be damage limitation. Without taking much-needed investment away from disaster mitigation, more–much more–needs to be spent on response. For instance, as I write, 2,000 firefighters are grappling with wildfires in the Garonne region of southern France. It ought to be 20,000. All the way from the Algarve of Portugal to the north of Sweden, uncontrolled fire has begun to define our landscapes. Even in Britain, more than 135 have occurred over the first six-and-a-half months this year. We need an ability to respond that is an order of magnitude greater than what we have now. Confirmation of this can be seen in the damage, suffering and casualties that harsh conditions are producing right before our eyes. It is vital to do more to reduce the damage by containing and extinguishing wildfires. Technology, equipment, personnel and organisation are needed as never before.

In February 2021, the state of Texas suffered a prolonged, widespread loss of electrical power. Electricity is the mother of all forms of critical infrastructure, as everything else depends on it, from banking to refrigeration to mass communication and more. The electricity generation and supply companies had failed to winterise their equipment, unlike Sweden, where similar conditions had little effect. In mid-2022 Texas is once again in crisis as demand for air conditioning outstrips electricity supply. Now that may be a problem that is on its way to afflict Europe, too. However, around the continent there are considerable variations. England has suffered buckled rails and the shut-down of main railway lines, softened runways on airports, and melting tarmac on roads. Southern European countries have had far fewer problems of this kind because they foresaw them at the design stage.

Europe will limp through the July 2022 heatwave and recover slowly at great expense, but what we need to know is whether it will bring together its resources to prepare for the next great, continent-wide manifestation of natural hazard impacts. The expertise is not lacking and the structures are there, although they are still weak and relatively ineffective. Civil protection is now a major imperative in all countries of the European Union and beyond. It is expensive, but countless studies have shown that even moderately wise investment is cheaper than letting damage proliferate. It also saves lives.

We must look forward to a time when disaster prevention, mitigation and response are a collective effort that fully transcends international boundaries and that is a form of participatory democracy. There is still time and there are still resources to create a Europe that minimises suffering rather than ignoring it.

David Alexander is a Professor of Risk and Disaster Reduction at UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction.

Photograph: Wildfire in the Province of Sassari, Sardinia. Photo by David Alexander –who had to drive through the flames to avoid being trapped by the fire.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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