Joint Public Hearing: Natural disasters - How should Europe respond?

Speech Published 20 Mar 2006 Last modified 16 Oct 2014, 12:56 PM
Address by Professor Jacqueline McGlade

European Parliament, 20 March 2006

Joint Public Hearing - Natural disasters - How should Europe respond?

Address by Professor Jacqueline McGlade Executive Director of the European Environment Agency

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have heard eloquent testimony this afternoon from the representatives of victims of natural disasters. I am very grateful that the European Environment Agency (EEA) has been invited to add its voice to this important joint hearing on how Europe should respond.

In the time available I would like to address three issues:

First, what are the facts? What do we know about the occurrence of floods, fires and droughts in Europe in recent years?

Second, what can we say about some of the drivers of recent phenomena? Without over-stating the scientific case, I will say a few words here about climate change.

And third, what can we say about the alert systems we have in place to forewarn us and to allow us to take action - where possible - to minimise the effects of natural disasters.

The Facts

So let us start with some facts.

In 2003 the European Environment Agency produced a report "Mapping the impacts of recent natural disasters and technological accidents in Europe". Copies of this report have been made available for this hearing.

The report looked beyond floods, fires and droughts to also focus on storms, landslides, snow avalanches as well as technological accidents such as oil spills, industrial accidents and mining accidents.

Although the report did not try to discern trends in extreme events themselves, for instance whether they are becoming more frequent, it did map the human, economic and environmental impacts of such events in Europe over the period 1998-2003.

So what has been happening in terms of floods, fires and droughts in the last couple of years?


Between 1998 and 2005, Europe suffered about 100 damaging floods causing some 700 fatalities, the displacement of about half a million people and at least 25 billion EUR in insured economic losses.

Around 1.5 % of the population of Europe was affected.

Looking at the flood events recorded between 1975 and 2005 in EM-DAT, the number of flood events per year increased over the period. However, the number of deaths per flood event decreased somewhat, probably due to improved warning and rescue systems.


Turning to the subject of fires, in the five Mediterranean Member States of what was the EU-15 - France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain - the area burnt in forest fires has varied between 200 000 and 600 000 hectares a year over the past 25 years.

In that period the total number of fires reported has risen sharply from around 20 000/year to 60 000/year, although this may partly reflect improved reporting procedures.

The summer of 2003 was particularly bad for forest fires in much of southern Europe.

Portugal, for example, experienced its worst forest fire season in 23 years as at least 215 000 hectares (5.6 % of its total forest area) burned. Forest fires often claim human victims, not least among fire fighters. The summer 2003 fires in Portugal, for instance, caused 15 deaths.

Economic losses generated by fires are estimated at 1 000-5 000 euro/hectare burnt but this figure may underestimate other costs such as landscape loss, with consequences for rural and eco-tourism, that are much harder to quantify. The Portuguese government has estimated the cost of the summer 2003 fires at 925 million euros.


Turning now to droughts, over the past decade severe episodes have taken place across Europe. This is not a phenomenon isolated in a few Member States. Droughts have occurred from Finland to Portugal and from the United Kingdom to Greece.
In the summer of 2003, for example, record low water flows were recorded in the River Danube in Bulgaria. Other European rivers, such as the Rhine, also had unusually low water levels. This situation contrasted with heavy flooding the summer before.

In Europe, droughts do not trigger famines and so they do not kill people. However, human, environmental and economic impacts can be devastating, especially when droughts are associated with heat waves. The fatal effects of heat waves were demonstrated during the summer of 2003, when temperatures in some areas (France, western Germany, south-west England) climbed to record highs. A heat wave across much of Europe during August 2003, considered the warmest August month on record in the northern hemisphere, claimed possibly as many as 35 000 lives, with France alone recording almost 15 000 deaths, mostly among elderly people.

The Science

These are some of the facts. But what does the science tell us?

It is not the role of the European Environment Agency to stand before you and make predictions of doom. If we take a longer time perspective, we see that Europe has always experienced floods, fires and droughts. But our analysis tells us that the pattern of land use in Europe means that we are exposing ourselves more to risk to natural disasters than in the past. In other words, our behaviour puts us at risk - we are living on and cultivating space which is more susceptible to natural disasters.

Climate Change

Climate change is of course an area in which we can say more. Four months ago, in December 2005 EEA published a report and a briefing on adaptation to climate change in Europe.

In Europe, mountain regions, coastal zones, wetlands and the Mediterranean region are particularly vulnerable. Although there could be some positive effects, many impacts are likely to be adverse. Existing adaptive measures are concentrated in flood defence, so there is considerable scope for adaptation planning and implementation in other areas, such as public health, water resources and management of ecosystems.

It is also becoming increasingly accepted that climate change is behind the increase in extreme weather events.

For example, climate change is likely to increase the frequency of extreme flood events in Europe, in particular the frequency of flash floods, which have the highest risk of fatality.

I have already mentioned the summer heat wave of 2003. It is very likely that greenhouse gases have doubled the risk of summer temperatures as hot as 2003. For example, it is estimated that such a heat wave is now four times more likely. By 2050 every second summer could be as hot as 2003.

The observation and warning Infrastructure

So, to echo the title of this hearing - "how should Europe respond"?

I will leave it to others to speak about the new climate change programme, flood defences, financial solidarity mechanisms, forest fire monitoring, civil protection mechanisms and the range of European financial and legislative responses. I would like to use the remainder of the time available to me to address the question of the observation and early warning infrastructure.

Natural disasters will of course continue to take place. In order to best plan for their impact we need to have in place the infrastructure to better understand their causes, to better predict their likely occurrence and to provide early warnings of their onset. Achieving these goals requires that we have in place a comprehensive, integrated and sustained infrastructure for observation and early warning. Since many of the natural disasters of which I have spoken are driven by global rather than local phenomena integrated observation and warning systems are needed at global, regional and local scales.

It would be a disaster of a different sort - but a disaster nonetheless - if we failed to invest in building and sustaining the systems that helps us to understand, predict and respond to catastrophic natural events.

This infrastructure is complex and of necessity multinational. Maintenance of existing systems and the implementation of new improved capability depend of long-term funding and global collaboration. Neither should be taken for granted.

At present large elements of the infrastructure needed to achieve effective long-tern integrated observation and early warning are at an experimental or pre-operational stage and are funded from research budgets rather than being treated as critical infrastructure. Despite this, these capabilities already form a critical part of our observation and early warning infrastructure which is sometimes taken for granted. Unless financial mechanisms are quickly put into place to ensure long-term operation we are likely to find that critical gaps appear - gaps that may take long time to fill given the time taken to build and implement satellite observing systems and complex in-situ observation networks.

Divergent national policies on sharing of data and information also threaten to undermine capability. We must rise above these differences if we are to build and sustain the best possible capacity to observe the Earth and respond effectively to the threat of natural disasters that have no respect for national boundaries.

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