by Nannette Cazaubon, Paris
Three major meetings on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation in civil protection were held in Barcelona and Valencia from 17 to 19 October 2023. Hosted by the Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), the three events organised by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM, see box) brought together 100 officials from 22 countries across the Euro-Mediterranean region.
Our magazine was invited to observe the event during the three days. Together with Editor-in-Chief Hartmut Bühl, I travelled to Barcelona and later to Valencia, eager to get first-hand information on the way the EU, together with its neighbours, addresses an increasingly challenging disaster management reality.
(Paris-Barcelona, 16 October 2023) On our way to the city of Gaudí, I studied the background papers we received from the European Commission in preparation for the meetings. I became aware that the Mediterranean region is warming 20% faster than the global average, with far-reaching impacts affecting the countries’ ecosystems and socio-economic fabric. This fragile risk landscape is expected to deteriorate and the frequency and intensity of disasters to increase, leading to an overload of national and regional civil protection response capacities.
I remembered well the terrifying news of last summer’s extreme weather events that hit many countries in Europe and the Mediterranean region with record-breaking heatwaves, disastrous forest fires like in Greece and Tunisia, and devasting flash floods like in Italy, Slovenia and Libya. These risks come in addition to the already high exposure to natural disasters such as earthquakes, which were tragically experienced in 2023 in Türkiye, Syria and Morocco. Against this backdrop, the three EU-UfM cooperation meetings we would participate in seemed quite timely to me.
PPRD Med Steering Committee meeting
The first of the three events took place on the morning of 17 October in Barcelona, at the UfM permanent Secretariat located in a beautiful palace surrounded by a parc. The first Steering Committee meeting of the new flagship programme “Prevention, Preparedness, Response to natural & man-made Disasters in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean” (PPRD Med, see box) gathered the Directors-General for civil protection or their representatives of the PPRD Med partner countries, as well as delegates from DG ECHO, the UfM, and technological partners.
A spirit of cooperation…
The meeting was a pivotal moment for the project governance, as it was the opportunity to review the progress of the inception phase before the start of the implementation phase. Opened by the UfM Deputy Secretary General, Ambassador John Paul Grech, who underlined the spirit of cooperation for what the UfM stands for, the meeting turned out to be quite a technical session but highly interesting in its content.
Officially launched in Rome on 6 June 2023, PPRD Med is a unique collaborative initiative of DG ECHO and the UfM, aimed at fostering a culture of preparedness and proactive risk reduction towards natural and man-made disasters. The risk priorities are above all wildfires, earthquakes, flooding and marine pollution, as well as natural hazard triggered technological accidents (NATECH). Key objectives are the strengthening of operational capacities of civil protection institutions, the development of interregional cooperation and synergies with other projects.
…and modern technologies
One of the programme’s cornerstones is the use of Earth observation instruments in support of civil protection, as explained PPRD Med Team Leader Philippe Geffroy. He presented in detail the PPRD Med intelligence platform which works with artificial intelligence (AI) and, through real-time high-resolution satellite images, can help to lead rescue teams, identify the passable roads, search for victims, or visualise possible damage on sensible sites such as chemical or nuclear power plants, etc.
Tristan Simonart, Team Lead International Cooperation at DG ECHO with whom I spoke during the lunch break, emphasised that PPRD Med is a country-specific programme and that the partner countries are free to define how they want to participate in the proposed actions and use the tools made available through the programme.
We left Barcelona in the afternoon and reached Valencia after a three-hour bus trip south along the lovely coast of the Mediterranean Sea. There was enough time to study the programme of the next day’s first ever joined session of the Directors-General for civil protection of the UfM member and participating states with their peers from the countries involved in the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM, see box). The latter had started their 51st informal meeting in Valencia in parallel. I read that the meeting would focus on the three key hazards identified for the Mediterranean basin – wildfires, storms and floods, and earthquakes – with the objective of exchanging on the operational side of cross-border cooperation and mutual assistance by showcasing recent experiences in Mediterranean countries.
Joint UCPM and UfM Directors-General meeting
Taking place at the Hotel Barceló with a view of Valencia’s most modern City of Arts and Sciences, the first joint UfM-UCPM meeting of 18 October was opened by the Spanish Director-General Francisco Ruiz Boada who welcomed the audience in the name of the Spanish EU Presidency. The Secretary General of the UfM, Ambassador Nasser Kamel, stressed the importance of solidarity, while DG ECHO’s Director-General Maciej Popowski emphasised the importance of the first joined session as an opportunity to advance work towards stronger regional cooperation.
Wildfires, floods, and earthquakes
The first of three sessions provided insights on Mediterranean countries’ experience of fighting wildfires. Portugal outlined its national preparedness against forest fires, Greece reported on its operational experience during the summer, Lebanon explained its national wildfire strategy and country-specific challenges, while Cyprus presented bilateral cooperation projects with Middle East countries. The second session focused on storms and floods with their dramatic consequences. Italy, Algeria, the Czech Republic and Jordan shared their national strategies and respective experiences from responses to these hazards. The last session was centred on preparedness and response to earthquakes. Romania elaborated on its national preparedness strategy for earthquakes, Palestine showcased cooperation projects in the Mediterranean region, while Tunisia shared its experience of the response to the February 2023 earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye.
The need for cooperation
Hartmut and I were impressed by the countries’ willingness to cooperate and put aside their differences as regards geopolitics, ambitions, political systems, populations, or culture and religion, to fight common threats. Telling examples, to name a few, are the trilateral cooperation project on water management between Israel, Palestine and Jordan (even if currently suspended because of the regional conflict), or the bilateral cooperation between Cyprus and geographically close Middle East countries that provided assistance to the island during the devasting wilfires last summer.
Discussions and exchanges continued into the afternoon and the next day during the meeting of the UfM Directors-General responsible for civil protection.
Fourth meeting of the UfM Directors-General
The fourth meeting of the UfM Directors-General in Valencia on 18-19 October was co-chaired by Hanna Jahns, Director for Disaster Preparedness and Prevention at DG ECHO and the Jordan Civil Defence Director-General Brigadier General Mohammad Mahmoud Al-Omari, in their capacities as UfM Co-Presidents. Ms Jahns said that the meeting was held under a single motto: “show and project the example of solidarity”, while General Al-Omari saw encouraging signs of resilience driven by successful cross-border cooperation.
Existing and future cooperation instruments
During the first day, participants discussed the cooperation tools available under the UCPM, such as the UfM regional dialogue platform with its three working groups, the new PPRD Med flagship programme, as well as on-site technical assistance and a multi-country risk mapping study. The second day was dedicated to the reflection on new proposals for cooperation instruments such as the UfM digital platform with three interfaces (public, didactical, operational) and the observatory of volunteerism aimed at involving the civil society in civil protection, presented by Laurent Alfonso, UfM Second National Expert on Civil Protection.
A key item on the agenda was the presentation of the UfM Action Plan 2030 and reflections on the establishment of a voluntary non-binding Mediterranean Civil Protection Framework (MFCP), which would open the way for increased operational interaction between UfM and UCPM countries and translate the technical discussions of the UfM regional dialogue platform into effective action on the ground. While some delegates noted concerns with the creation of new structures, many others were optimistic that such a new framework would enable actors on both sides of the Mediterranean to pool their emergency prevention and response resources more effectively and jointly address the immense security challenges facing the region.
Preparing for the future
Many of the participants we talked to underlined the opportunity the EU-UfM partnership offers for the exchange of knowledge and best practice between the countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. Placed under the motto of solidarity, the three-day event in Spain, with its various meetings, led to significant progress in identifying cooperation potentials and shaping the path for the future, with even closer Euro-Mediterranean cooperation on both sides of the Mediterranean.