UN calls for cooperation as Europe struggles amid extremes of fire and floods

The UN has called for cooperation to reduce the risk of natural disasters as freak weather has left swathes of western Europe ablaze in drought conditions, while central and eastern parts suffer extreme flood damage.

In Portugal, forests, farms and scrubland continued to burn as the country suffers its worst drought in 30 years. International fire-fighting aircraft are helping authorities to tackle the fires which have killed at least 15 people and destroyed at least 150,000 hectares.

The area around Coimbra, Portugal’s third largest city, has been the worst affected as temperatures reached 43 degrees Celsius and strong winds fanned the flames. A state of emergency has been declared in the region.

Spain and France have also been affected as the drought conditions and dry undergrowth have proved ideal for spreading fires (see related story).

The current situation in Portugal has been made worse by changes in the use of land. The rural exodus has left large areas of land uncultivated, increasing the amount of combustible materials that can trigger big fires when droughts occur.

Salvano Briceno, the director of the UN disaster reduction agency said every country should follow basic rules of fire prevention and cooperate with its neighbours.

“The treatment of combustible material, proper training for safe use of fire for agricultural purposes and a better behaviour by the public to avoid triggering fires are some of the main rules,” he said. “National platforms for disaster risk reduction have a role to play to make forest management one of their top priorities and to better prepare their populations to reduce risk and vulnerability to natural hazards.”

Meanwhile, rescue operations continued across Switzerland, Austria, Romania and Bulgaria as heavy rain has caused flooding across the region. Over twenty people have so far lost their lives in the floods as rivers burst their bank and torrents sweep through towns and cities (see related story).

Parts of the Swiss capital Bern are under water and most of the farmland around Bulgarian capital Sofia has been ruined. Roads and railways have been blocked and several areas have reported contaminated drinking water.

The UN’s Mr Briceno said the torrents were a reminder that “floods do not only happen in India or Sierra Leone, and urged preventative measures in Europe, such as building houses only in safe areas, allowing water to evacuate through the natural flow of rivers and controlling erosion to prevent mudslides.

“It is incredible that people in a country like Switzerland are dying because of floods,” he said. “We cannot be fatalistic about these phenomena. We cannot prevent flash floods and storms but we can reduce our vulnerability and learn to live with natural hazards.”

Cooler temperatures are predicted for Portugal over coming days, meaning the authorities could have a chance of containing the last of the big fires, but more rain is forecast across central Europe, meaning the flooding situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

David Hopkins

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