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Reimagining disaster risk reduction to cope with the new European summer

Yet another summer of unprecedented floods, fires and high temperatures is threatening Europe. We should not be surprised. But we should be better prepared, writes SEI’s Janne Parviainen in Euractiv.

Janne Parviainen / Published on 2 August 2023

Wildfires in Greece. Photo: james gardiner / Getty Images

The European summer is once again the season of disaster. Things got off to an early start in May when the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy was battered by floods more severe than any the country had experienced over the past hundred years, accompanied by more than 400 landslides. In July came the wildfires, now raging across Italy, Croatia, Portugal, and Greece, where the largest fire-related evacuation in the country’s history took place. Meanwhile, temperatures on the continent are breaking records again, following the “warmest ever” summers of  2022, 2021, 2020, and 2019.

With the world failing both to mitigate climate change and to adequately fund adaptation, this should not surprise anyone. We should expect progressively more severe disasters in summertime Europe – and, for that matter, in summer almost anywhere in the Global North (see record-breaking forest fires in Canada, the most extreme heat wave ever faced in the US South, and heat, droughts and floods in China). Yet, the response to this trend is thus far striking tepid, at times veering toward denial (see the recent decision to continue flying tourists to the Greek Isles as fires spread).

We cannot carry on this way. This summer is yet another siren call to reimagine what it means to tackle disaster risk.

As the summer unfolds, it is worth remembering that natural hazards become disasters only when they exceed the capacities of those affected to cope with their impacts.

The disasters in Europe arise through the absence of climate change mitigation, to be sure, but also through a failure both to stop building in highly exposed areas and to address the interplay between development and disaster risk. Political decision-making continues to exacerbate vulnerabilities that magnify risks. Thus, disasters cannot be treated as external threats to European societies, but as products of our own making.

How can Europe prepare?

Alleviate poverty

Policies that alleviate poverty can reduce disaster risks. As poverty and impoverishment continue to rise, so too, will disaster risks because the poorest tend to be the most vulnerable. Even in the EU, one in five people – representing some 95.4 million of us – is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Even though an increasing number of people cannot afford to protect themselves or recover from these events, such topics rarely surface in the technical discussions  of ways to engineer greater resilience in Europe. Instead, the emphasis should be on measures that mitigate the economic conditions that erode resilience and magnify vulnerabilities.

Rethink development

Risk reduction must take a more holistic approach to focus on long-term sustainable development and cross-sector collaboration.  Despite plans to support the greening of European economies and investing in disaster risk management, implemented measures often miss the mark – for example by failing to enforce building codes (a major driver of destruction following the earthquake in Turkey) or by allowing unsafe investments to proliferate (rebuilding in floodplains in Germany). Cities’ geographic expansion to unsafe areas increases disaster risks. Building more urban concrete structures risks creating urban heat islands (now considered a public health hazard); by contrast, green spaces can help protect populations from heatwaves

Bring those at risk into policymaking

Preparing for hazards requires tapping technical and managerial expertise, but this is not enough on its own. The scale and magnitude of disasters in Europe are likely to exceed the capacities of all official infrastructure and response mechanisms. In the face of this, every effort must be made to strengthen communities and the capacities of individuals to cope with disaster events – and to incorporate the expertise that people on the leading edge of disasters have acquired through painful experience.

Community-based disaster risk reduction” is often the go-to approach in the Global South. Yet, this seldom surfaces in discussions about disasters in Europe, where communal solidarity is in decline. “Citizen science” and “citizen participation” are important, but such a focus on individuals in risk-governance efforts may overlook existing communities and peoples’ capacity to support each other in times of adversity. Whilst impressive strides have been made to reduce risks via strengthened communication, coordination, planning and integrated data systems (so-called “top-down” solutions), very few pay attention to the skills of volunteers and citizens who often lead response as disasters unfold. For example, it seems that no attention has been paid to the efforts of thousands of community volunteers who responded to the flooding in Emilia-Romagna in May 2023. “Bottom-up” approaches merit attention, and communal solidarity, whatever of it can be salvaged, should be cherished.

Encourage political engagement

Making these changes could help begin to bring about greater engagement in a political climate that itself devalues climate action.

A drop of rain never seems responsible for flooding. The person stuck in traffic never feels responsible for the jam. A single vote seldom seems pivotal. Yet individual actions add up. Risk governance in Europe depends on the willingness of its peoples to advocate for and support change needed into create safer futures.

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