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EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Opening address Civil Protection Forum
Civil Protection Opening Forum/Brussels
15 May 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Colleagues and Friends,
I am impressed to see so many people attending the fourth gathering of the Civil Protection Forum. Perhaps it is because we have not been together for a long time, that you turned up in large numbers, having missed each other. However, I had to abandon that thought. I know that the strength of Civil Protection in Europe is so strong, that it can easily fill a room of this size without any real difficulty.
I am very proud to be the Commissioner in charge of Civil Protection. In the three and a half years that I have been in the job I have on several occasions seen the courage, dedication and camaraderie of our teams in the field in action, or in training exercises.
We come from diverse backgrounds. Looking around this room I can see that amongst us we speak at least 23 different languages or more. But yet, when we act, we act as one.
I started in this job just after the earthquake in Haiti, we then moved on to Chile and Pakistan and the triple disasters in Japan. When we go to places far way, or when we are called upon to act for one of our Member States in Europe like Poland, Hungary, Romania or my own country Bulgaria, the response is the same. Time and again we see the difference, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism makes in terms of coordinated action.
The gains we have made with regard to the speed, efficiency and the overall comprehensive approach in our response to crisis situations is impressive.
During my time as the Commissioner, in the past three and a half years I have visited all the countries in Europe bar four. Initially I thought I would list all the countries I have visited where I have seen the Civil Protection Mechanism at work. But this is a very long list. So, I thought it would be easier for me to mention the four that I have not yet seen. They are Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Malta.
Are there people in the audience from any of these countries? Slovenia? Latvia? Lithuania? Malta? First let me apologise for not having still visited you. You will see me soon. Every time I visit any of our teams in the field I learn something new. It also makes me very proud and gives me a tremendous sense of achievement. I am not going to go over all the examples of what I learnt.
However I am going to concentrate on one example which I believe encapsulates all the elements we are striving to build. The example I am going to concentrate on is the triple disaster in Japan. The disasters there were so overwhelming and something that no one could anticipate.
May I ask how many of you have visited Japan after the triple disaster? Are there people here who were in the team? Let me tell you that the sheer scale and magnitude of the disaster goes beyond anything that springs from our imagination. Boats on top of houses a kilometre inland, piles and piles of cars and destruction of a kind that Japan is still struggling to recover from. They have in fact achieved a lot and done a marvellous job in reconstruction but there is more to do.
When the Earthquake and Tsunami struck we mobilised our Civil Protection response teams immediately at the request of the Japanese authorities. They specifically asked for a collective EU response. They said please do not come to us individually as we are unable to cope with too many teams.
So, we deployed one 17 member team to the area right next to the Ibaraki prefecture in Fukushima. They went there when it was still considered dangerous. I personally did not inform my family of my plans to travel out there before I arrived as I knew they would be worried. We all carried little Geiger counters on our jackets that recorded the level of radiation. I have to tell you that when I checked my counter on my return home, I found out that I had been exposed to far more radiation on my flights to and from Tokyo, than at any point during my stay in Japan.
It highlighted the incredible courage of European Civil Protection teams. It also highlighted their competence as we delivered seven cargo planes full of material assistance that ranged from Geiger counters, radiation protection suites, blankets, water and other necessities
The reason I highlighted Japan is because from their experience I drew three important lessons for us in our work today. The first and the most obvious is that the magnitude of a disaster can be so great, that even a country that is best prepared for this kind of disaster, is overwhelmed. Japan fitted this description, but was still brought to its knees. When planning for the future, we need to constantly bear in mind the unimaginable disasters – things we have never witnessed before.
Secondly we need to look at the strength of our coordinated response. We actually did well in Japan. Even today they remember that we came to their aid in their hour of need. When I meet a Japanese visitor, they start by saying "you were with us in our most dire moment of need, thank you". The reason we succeeded was because we came together quickly, mobilised ourselves, coordinated, and deployed our team as one unit.
Thirdly we need to look at what Japan is doing now, after the triple disaster that hit them. They are raising the bar, lifting their standards and building their capacity to cope with disasters. This is also what we need to do, to strive for excellence. Even if we are very good we must ask the question. Will we be good enough to cope with disasters of an unimaginable scale in the future? This is what I would like to bring out in the discussions.
In my opening remarks I would therefore like to focus on three issues, namely the current context in which we operate; the future of the Civil Protection Mechanism; and our role in the world. With the example that I used of Japan I have already explained the context in which we have to work. Disasters killed over a million people in the last decade. This loss of life is disproportionally concentrated in low-income countries.
But we in Europe have not been spared. A hundred thousand Europeans died the majority from heat waves which is the biggest killer in Europe. Heat waves are an increasing trend in Europe. Then, there is the issue of massive economic damage.
In the EU alone, direct economic losses amounted to a hundred and fifty billion euros between 1998 and 2009. Floods cause the most amount of economic damage in Europe. At least fifty per cent of our losses are due to the damage caused by floods. Worldwide the figure was a thousand billion in economic losses and in 2011alone the damage totalled three hundred billion. Last year the figures were high again, mainly because of hurricane Sandy in the US. It brought New York, one of the world’s financial capitals, to a standstill. It turned parts of Manhattan into a third world country with no electricity or drinking water.
What does all this mean for us in Europe and the Civil Protection Mechanism? Let me state at the onset that I would be most interested in your views on this subject and in the discussions that you hold in the next two days. The most important adjustments we need to make, is to lift the bar on our capabilities, in our preparedness and prevention agenda, in Civil Protection. We need to make it a key element in the Civil Protection Mechanism. We must know what risks we face. Now, we need ascertain how to cope with them with our existing capabilities, and then where we need to build on them. We also need to figure out where we can expect to find disasters that overwhelm us, and where we would therefore need to use the Civil Protection Mechanism.
In ten years of existence our Civil Protection Mechanism has been activated one hundred and eighty times. This means on a hundred and eighty separate occasions we have acted as buffers for each other and for others that need help around the world.
We have taken steps in the new Civil Protection Mechanism to move more towards preparedness and prevention. We have also brought preparedness and prevention into line as a horizontal issue across the board for other sectors. This is because it is not something that we alone can achieve. We have for instance included in the Environmental Assessment a requirement to access the risks of disaster. For long term investments we have also required disaster risk assessments due to the impact of climate change which unfortunately is already upon us.
We have also put forward a paper for discussion on insurance. This is because the insurance industry can play a huge role in helping us. They can help us to send the right signal on preparedness prevention. They can also to help us mobilise resources that will then enable us to access damage more effectively.
Secondly we need to improve our defence response capabilities. With the new legislation we are moving towards a coordinated “Voluntary Pool” of assets. We don’t want to have an ad hoc approach to crisis situations and want to move to a more a pre-planned mode instead.
This will enable us to build on a concept that we already. These are modules that are standing like the famous LEGO concept that was gifted to us by Denmark. This enables us to combine different gifts from various countries due to standardisation of the product.
We are moving on this voluntary pool extremely well. We now have over one hundred and fifty modules registered at the European level, and of course we want to more. In a sense we are combining two things. On one side we say that civil protection is primarily a national responsibility. Using risk assessment strategies we provide the tools for countries to work out how much more they need to invest in their own preparedness for risks and enhance their ability to deal with them.
On the other hand using the voluntary pool, at the time of an extra-ordinary crisis we have the buffer that we need, in a manner that is cost effective.
Thirdly, we know that transportation is always a bottle neck. In the new legislation, we want to be able to ease the burden for a country that comes to our aid, using the resources of the Civil Protection Mechanism. It is still a matter of debate, but I really hope that we can reach closure so the legislation can move on.
Fourthly, information, planning scenarios, research, and innovation all contribute to enhanced capabilities and speed. The Emergency Response Centre which opened its doors this morning will help us to build on all our achievements up to this point. They will take then one step further by being a one stop shop for crisis response, avoiding duplication, increasing efficiency, and being cost effective. This Centre has been a dream that has come true. As most of you were not present this morning there will be a short clip later that will give you a brief introduction.
We will use the ERC collectively as it belongs to all of us. We will use it for raising our capabilities, responding faster and enabling faster decision making possible. We will be able to process information quickly and make projections for the future better than we have done before.
Last but not least gap identification. Thinking of the unthinkable has to be our number one priority. We cannot rely on the experience we have built on the past because we don't know what the future can bring. We have to develop this gap identification capability and figure out the most cost effective way to fill these gaps. I know this is an issue that is yet not yet closed in the Civil Protection legislation. Please let's get to the bottom of it and close it so we can move on.
We will of course hear from you all on what we can do better. I can tell you that we are always interested to learn and improve on our capabilities.
We need to think globally. We in Europe have a responsibility to connect to our citizens and also for the benefit of the whole world. We have the Hyogo Framework for Action and 2015 is a very critical year. We must engage with the common European position to get us to the point where we want to be. At the conference in 2015 we need to figure out what we are going to say and what we want from it.
Our partnership with OCHA has evolved. I still remember my first days as a Commissioner when there was a great deal of anxiety between the humanitarian community and the civil protection community. The two communities needed to align themselves and get into sync. We identified mandates and roles where we could work together and where we could not work together and why? I believe we have been successful.
I was very pleased to get a letter from the UN Under Secretary General Valerie Amos congratulating us on the new Emergency Response Centre. I just want to quote from her letter which says, "The ERC, the operational heart of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and a key instrument to channel the EU's support to disaster affected people in the EU and beyond."
We Europeans are in the lead. We want to ensure, that the twenty to thirty countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, are focused on building resilience. This is where our policies on resilience kick in.
We need to collaborate with other countries like us the US and Australia, with whom we have agreements. To work with emerging markets such as China, we opened up the EU China Disaster Management Institute, together with the Member States, to ensure that this partnership with China is being built up.
We heard Russia congratulate us for the ERC today, and ASEAN have their representative here. We have to build these partnerships up. In times of overwhelming disasters we rely on each other. In terms of changing out mind-sets and injecting a culture of prevention, we have to work together to get there.
Let me finish with a simple conclusion on what I hope is the beginning of a fruitful discussion over the next two days. We live in a rapidly changing world. In some ways this is for the better as it is becoming a richer world. But, in many ways it is also a more fragile world than the one that I was born in. Everywhere I go, when I talk to people, I hear the same story. This frailty is mostly because of climate change, but also because of demographic changes and industrialisation. All this makes us more vulnerable to disasters. More people today are affected by disasters that cause more damage.
Two days ago I was talking to people in Jordon which has a problem of water scarcity. They were saying that they did not know how they would cope. Water has become more and more scarce and they continue to be flooded with refugees from Syria.
Human beings are amazingly capable of coping with incredible hardships and difficult situations. We are very inventive. One thing that we have in our favour is the ability to help each other and build solidarity in times of crisis. I have seen this solidarity kick in, bringing out the best in people, when the worst happens.
In Europe we are going through some difficult times. When you read about public opinion, it says our citizens are more anxious, and their support for spending on aid has weakened. Not for the work that we do. Over ninety per cent of Europe's five hundred million citizens want us to continue. I am confident that we can deliver on our pledges as the best community in Europe is seated in this room.
I have said jokingly, that if first responders were in charge of the economic crisis, it would have been over a long time ago. So, thank you for letting me be your Commissioner. I am looking forward to visiting the four countries I have not yet visited. Here is a short video on the opening of the ERC which belongs to all of us. I am sure we will all make good use of it.