Interview with Julia Stewart-David, Acting Director, Disaster Preparedness and Prevention/Civil Protection Horizontal Issues (ECHO B.1), and Hans Das, Director for Emergency Management and rescEU (ECHO A), DG ECHO, European Commission, Brussels
The European: Ms Stewart-David, Mr Das, you both hold leading positions within the European Commission’s Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO). Let me first ask some questions on the European Union’s (EU) policy on crisis management and civil protection inside and outside the Union before coming specifically to humanitarian aid, both being complementary. When it comes to civil protection, the EU assumes a supporting role, coordinating voluntary contributions of in-kind assistance from countries participating in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM). DG ECHO plays a key role in this coordination process.
Ms Stewart-David, could you explain to our readers in what situations the UCPM is triggered?
Julia Stewart-David: All professionals in civil protection and disaster risk management know disasters are getting more and more complex and multi-sectorial. Starting from this basis, when a disaster strikes, any country in the world, but also the United Nations and its agencies or a relevant international organisation, can call on the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for help. After a request for assistance through the UCPM, the European 24/7 Emergency Response Coordination System (ERCC) coordinates and mobilises assistance and expertise
(see figure 1).
The European: Mr Das, could you tell us how this system can be adapted to the challenges of different types and increasing numbers of crises?
Hans Das: We indeed witness a sharp increase in emergencies across the world that overwhelm national response capacities. Since 2019, the ERCC has received requests for assistance in the context of 322 crisis situations in EU Member States and countries outside the EU. Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, major on-set disasters and the effects of climate change on natural hazards have triggered an exponential increase in UCPM activations (see figure 2).
We expect this trend to continue also in the future. It is extremely worrying. The role of civil protection and emergency management is fundamentally changing. At EU level, we have to focus more on the anticipation of crisis situations and their cascading effects, refine and strengthen our early warning systems and significantly scale up European capacity overall to deal with large-scale emergencies. In DG ECHO we have taken solid steps already last year to reinforce the capability of the ERCC in this regard.
The European: The Union has the ambition to further develop its capacities to be able to react appropriately to crises of different nature, even multifaceted or hybrid, or emerging simultaneously. Ms Stewart-David, is the Union already prepared for this?
Julia Stewart-David: It is true! Crises and emergencies are becoming more and more intersectoral and the Union is confronted with an unprecedented level of threats, some of which have been considered unthinkable until very recently. For this reason, the EU and Member States have collectively identified five disaster resilience goals that address areas with the need to strengthen Europe’s resilience to disasters and crises. Adopted at the beginning of 2023, the European Disaster Resilience Goals are a common baseline to support prevention and preparedness actions for disasters capable of causing multi-country transboundary effects. Prevention and preparedness activities, knowledge sharing, and cross-border and international cooperation are key.
The European: Mr Das, in this context, is a voluntary European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP) to which nations commit resources such as medical teams, experts, specialised equipment, or transportation still adapted to these new challenges?
Hans Das: The UCPM has significantly expanded the response capability of the European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP) in recent years. The ECPP has become a cornerstone of Europe’s capacity to quickly mobilise modules and teams across borders and into a variety of disaster scenarios. It is indeed based on voluntary contributions but follows capacity goals that are defined together with Member States. The ERCC regularly invites Member States to mobilise their capacities from the pool when needed and with great success.
The earthquake in Türkiye and Syria is the most recent example, where the UCPM deployed 32 search and rescue and six emergency medical teams, many of which are part of the ECPP. This significant EU response also showed that our emphasis in quality is paying off: the statistics show that our EU teams performed significantly better than other international teams, both in terms of lives saved and in terms of patients treated.
The European: But is this sufficient? Shouldn’t the EU rather create baseline commitments, eg the stockpiling of equipment similar to medical stockpiling?
Hans Das: We have indeed witnessed crisis situations in which the ECPP did not suffice or could not provide the right type of response capacity. For this reason, in 2020, DG ECHO started to develop rescEU, the EU’s strategic safety net of its own response capacities. Under rescEU, DG ECHO has contracted the development of large medical and CBRN stockpiles, CBRN decontamination modules, emergency shelter, generator stockpiles, MEDEVAC planes, multi-purpose planes, field hospitals and firefighting aircraft. Well over €2bn are gradually being made available to develop rescEU. Together with the ECPP, rescEU builds a unique and additional layer of protection against large-scale emergencies.
The European: A year ago, in March 2022, the EU Council adopted conclusions calling for the adaptation of civil protection to extreme weather events resulting from climate change. What are the implications for DG ECHO’s work?
Julia Stewart-David: Climate change is and will be the main driver of emergencies in Europe and worldwide. As a result of the Council Conclusions, DG ECHO has launched a study to assess how to transform the UCPM into a greener instrument. The study is at its inception phase, but its aim would be to give us further concrete steps to make sure European civil protection’s own impact on climate and the environment will be reduced.
We also regularly support Member States with prevention activities aiming at reducing the risks and impact of extreme weather events such as floods, wildfires and heatwaves. Our support is also translated into several prevention and preparedness projects being financed through our calls.
The European: On the practical on-site situation, Mr Das, while the needs for humanitarian aid are immense and still growing, budgets are limited. This leads to the problem of prioritisation for on-site help. In other words: who on the ground will receive help, who will not and who decides?
Hans Das: The decision-making process for prioritising who receives humanitarian aid on the ground can be complex and varies depending on the specific situation. Under the UCPM, we deliver in-kind assistance, deploy modules and teams and provide expertise based on a clear request for assistance from the national authorities or the UN. The ERCC is in 24/7 contact with the affected countries and reviews their needs assessment on a constant basis. This ensures that emergency assistance is always tailor-made to the crisis and reflects real priorities.
The European: But what happens when different countries request the same type of assistance and there is a general lack of capacity in Member States and the ECPP?
Hans Das: In this case, we mobilise rescEU and apply a methodology that takes into account factors such as the severity of need, the vulnerability of the affected population, the availability of other resources, and the capacity of local authorities and communities to respond. In terms of humanitarian funding, similar comprehensive needs assessments and methodologies for rapid and anticipatory financing in the context of on-set disaster are used.
The European: I have the impression that since the Russian attack on Ukraine, the EU crisis management players have accelerated the decision-making process. What are the implications for your work at the operational level?
Hans Das: The EU crisis management activities of the EU for Ukraine are very much cross-sectorial and are coordinated in large part by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre, which is also the operational heart of the UCPM. We are conducting the longest and most complex emergency response operation in the EU’s history, covering not only traditional civil protection needs but also needs in areas as diverse as energy, agriculture, transport and digital.
The European: Ms Steward-David, I see that you want comment?
Julia Stewart-David: In the past 10 years, each big emergency Europe has faced has reformed the role of the UCPM. This is reflected in the recent legislative changes of the UCPM Regulation 1313/2013. I want to give you some examples: in 2017, the wildfire crisis in Portugal led to the origin to the rescEU stockpile, the ECPP and the UCPM Knowledge Network; in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic brought us a rescEU reinforcement and the commitment to identify disaster resilience goals and disaster scenarios as well as making our system more flexible by enabling the Commission to directly procure rescEU capacities. With Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine we have deepened our cooperation with the private, energy and security sectors but not only. The instability in Europe has also strengthened our conviction that cooperation with our partner countries is central and this is why since 2022 we have welcomed three new Participating States to the mechanism: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine.
The European: Mr Das, in the area of emergency management in humanitarian aid, what are some of ECHO’s innovative
approaches to face the increase of needs across the world?
Hans Das: Today, humanitarian needs are at an all-time high. According to the UN, in 2023, 339 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This is a significant increase from the 274 million people in need in 2022, which was already the highest figure in decades. As needs soar, humanitarian actors are called to step up to the challenge. They must adapt to fast-changing scenarios where even the shortest delay in the field response might cost lives and further deteriorate the situation. To increase the EU’s own response capacity in humanitarian aid, in 2022, DG ECHO has, for example, created the European Humanitarian Response Capacity (EHRC), which is a set of operational tools designed to fill gaps in the humanitarian response to sudden-onset natural hazards and human-induced disasters (see box below). Finally, we have proposed a new humanitarian logistics policy, encouraging the international humanitarian community to develop more joined up and innovative approaches to logistics in humanitarian operations, which I believe can be a game changer in a context of increasing needs.
The European: This leads me to my last question to you both. Crisis responders and humanitarian aid workers intervening in emergency areas run a high risk of being killed, kidnapped, wounded or arrested. How can their protection be ameliorated?
Julia Stewart-David: Indeed, first responders are frequently exposed to dangerous situations and my deep and sincere recognition goes to all Member States experts and volunteers being the real representation of European solidarity. From our side, we are committed to improving the knowledge and the competences of the civil protection experts deployed as well as their national civil protection authorities through dedicated capacity-building projects and UCPM exercises aiming at testing capacities and systems to be better prepared for and during crises. Under the umbrella of the Union Civil Protection Knowledge Network, we are constantly striving for up-to-date and realistic scenarios to exercise and test knowledge and skills not normally exercised. Recently we have included new scenarios such as epidemics, CBRN incidents, marine pollution and much more.
Hans Das: I agree with Julia. Another element of protection around emergency management concerns the sufficiently adapted and right type of equipment for UCPM emergency response intervention. This holds true for disasters, such as forest fires, but also for new or re-emerging type of risks, such as CBRN. In the area of wildfires, we could see that personal protective equipment plays a major role in keeping firefighters safe. This is something that needs to be considered when, for example, deploying firefighting teams from northern Europe to the south where the fire hazard has different dimensions than in the north. Modules need to adapt to these different circumstances for the safety of their staff. The same holds true for CBRN risks. Search and rescue, medical care and other teams need to be adapted and protected when responding to large-scale CBRN emergencies. Via the ECPP the UCPM finances, among other things, the adaptation of existing modules to such scenarios, for example.
The European: I thank you both for this conversation and wish you success for your important engagement.