The crucial message of upgrading prevention, co-ordination and regional co-operation in response to environmental emergencies was stressed by members of the international Steering Committee on Environmental Emergencies during their recent three-day visit and meeting in Greece. UN Officials of the Joint United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) convened for the first time in Ancient Olympia. They conferred with Members of the Hellenic Parliament and visited areas of the Ilia region destroyed by the wildfires of 2007, accepting the invitation of the “Green Star” awardee, Ms. Dionysia-Theodora Avgerinopoulou Member of the Hellenic Parliament.
The visit of the Steering Committee took place from November 30-December 2 and was a successful one, by all means. The Committee discussed, amongst others, issues of particular interest to the Greek people and including ways of raising preparedness levels of the civilian protection mechanism in order to respond more efficiently in cases of environmental emergencies and natural disasters.
On November 30, the Steering Committee had discussions with four competent Committees of the Hellenic Parliament, in a special working session. Mr. Chris Dijkens, Chair of the Steering Committee on Environmental Emergencies presented to parliamentarians from all sides of the political spectrum, the role of the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environmental Unit. Mr. Dijkens stressed the importance of preparing for environmental emergencies and explained the significance of strengthening the capacities of Regional Organizations to respond to environmental crises in their region, and of further supporting the Environmental Emergencies Centre, a major project of the Joint Environment Unit.
Ms. Avgerinopoulou M.P has since last February proposed the foundation of a Regional Co-Ordination Center, to be headquartered in Greece, so that it can quickly coordinate volunteers to neighboring countries in case of environmental emergencies. In her welcome speech, Ms. Avgerinopoulou restated that Greece has the capacity and the ability to play a key role in such a regional organization and strongly supported the position document on environmental emergencies that was submitted by the Advisory Group on Environmental Emergencies to the Earth Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio+20).
It was these propositions that took a center stage at the special public event presenting the accomplishments of the Steering Committee at the King George Hotel, that was organized that same night by the President of the European Institute of Law, Science and Technology (E.I.L.S.T), Ms. Dionysia-Theodora Avgerinopoulou. Members of the Hellenic Parliament, diplomats, and representatives of institutions that helped restore and provided assistance to villages of the Ilia Prefecture, scientists, representatives of the civil society and dozens of Greek people were informed on the role and work of the Steering Committee. During the public event, Ms. Avgerinopoulou, President of E.I.L.S.T , a research non for profit N.G.O, referred also to the extensive pro bono work done by the institute for the restoration of Ilia and honored people and volunteers that provided help.
A “Prize of Excellence in Solidarity” was bestowed to the “Marianna Vardinogiannis Institute”, to the Republic of Cyprus, to the Mayor of Ixelles Mr.Willy Decourty and the “Paneliakos Association of America and Canada” for their solid assistance to devastated villages Makistos, and Artemida, as well as the Zacharo municipality and the Ilia Prefecture, in general.
On December 1, the Steering Committee had their successful meeting in the birthplace of the Olympic spirit, the place that was the cradle of the ecumenical spirit of solidarity, volunteerism and excellence. Their meeting took place, at the premises of the International Olympic Academy (I.O.A), by courtesy of the I.O.C (A?).
On December 2, the Steering Committee accompanied by Ms. Avgerinopoulou and state and local officials had the opportunity to meet and discuss with emergency responders of the Ilia area, and with people affected by the 2007 wildfires. The Steering Committee visited the fire brigade outpost in the city of Krestena, the “2000 Natura” protected ecosystem of Lake Kaiafa, and the villages Artemida and Makistos, that still suffer the consequences of the fires. The Steering Committee was informed by the local people, members of the forestry authority as well as volunteer emergency responder groups on the challenges that they continue to face.
At the end of their field trip at the afflicted areas a special public event was organized by Ms. Avgerinopoulou in Pyrgos the capital of the Ilia Prefecture. The Steering Committee was applauded by the public, not only for choosing to visit their area, but also because they offered various suggestions to the audience on improving the response to environmental and natural disasters.
During the vivid discussion with local people, local volunteer rescue teams and environment associations the President of the General Assembly of the International Civil Protection Organization, Dr. Jean Pierre Nana, called Greece to join the organization and proposed support in setting up a Regional Training Center for Civil Protection units in Greece and assistance in training Greek members of civil protection forces, assistance in boosting the capacity of volunteer responders, and assistance in setting up an “early warning system” of emergencies. From his part, Mr. Rene Nijenhuis of the Joint Envrionment Unit promised to share the know-how acquired by his team and the “Guidelines of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG)” with local volunteers to base their future actions on.
The event was closed by Mr. Dijkens who warmly thanked Ms.Avgerinopoulou for hosting the Meeting in Greece, not only because it provided the Steering Committee with useful exchange of experience but also for the Greek hospitality and its symbolic nature. During the public event, Mr. Vladimir Sakharov, OCHA, Chief of the Joint UNEP/ OCHA Environment Unit thanked Ms. Avgerinopoulou for the warm hospitality, for her stamina in promoting environmental emergencies issues and presented her with a token of appreciation, a small UN flag.