The Mediterranean – a Wildfire Hotspot and a Geopolitical Playground

Greece has been battling raging wildfires for over a week, with its second-largest island, Evia, bearing the greatest impact as the flames have isolated its Northern region. As many regional economies in Greece rely on agriculture and tourism, these fires will devastate communities and could have long-lasting consequences. Evia is said to be particularly vulnerable to wildfires due to its expansive pine forests and olive trees. According to data from the European Forest Fire Information System, more than 56,000 hectares have been burnt in 2021, compared to an average of 1,700 hectares per annum between 2008-2020. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and so far, 2,600 people have been evacuated from the island. In response, Prime Minister Mitsotakis has now approved a €500-million aid budget for Evia and Attica to support victims.

Almost 600 wildfires have broken out across Greece in the month of August, spanning Athens to Pefki and Zakynthos, overwhelming the Greek firefighting forces. Other countries have offered support, including the UK, Germany, France, and Sweden, and the EU has offered assistance, mostly through coordinating these contributions. The EU has mobilised 14 planes, three helicopters, 1,300 fire fighters and 250 vehicles to help local services battle the fires. This assistance also comes after the Greek Civil Protection Ministry announced a €1.7 billion fire protection plan, with funds mostly coming from the EU and the European Investment bank.

However, the Greek Government has faced criticism over the handling of the fires, particularly given that fires in Athens in 2018 killed more than 100 people, and exposed the need for more robust civil protection networks. Prime Minister Mitsotakis addressed the nation on the 9th of August to apologise for the initial response, stating his first priority is to organise aid for victims and that there would be time for “criticism and self-criticism”. Despite the Greek Government recently appointing a Chief Heat Officer – the first of its kind in Europe and only second in the world – many Greek citizens believe the fires could have been mitigated by increased use of water-bombing aircrafts in the early stages of the fires. These criticisms stem from concerns regarding the longer-term impact of the debt crisis, with all forms of public service spending bearing significant cuts. Research shows that cuts to the fire services from 2010-18 were greater than €1 billion and as a result, at least 30% of fire engines were rendered out of service.

Turkey has also struggled to contain its own wildfires since mid-June, which are said to be the worst the country has experienced. There have been fewer contributions from other nations compared to Greece, as Turkish President Erdogan condemned the use of #HelpTurkey on Twitter, describing the framing of Turkey in crisis as “terror by lies” promoted by the West, and that “Strong Turkey” is the correct message to promote. His Government has come under scrutiny for failing to include firefighting planes in its inventory and for blaming the fires on arsonists, which they claimed were linked to outlawed Kurdish militants. Turkey’s Government continues to lack a significant degree of accountability on climate action, with Turkey one of only six nations that is yet to ratify the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. President Erdogan has said that he will not commit to the Agreement unless Turkey is classified as a developing country – highlighting the inconsistency of his position in condemning any framing of Turkey as in need of assistance regarding the recent fires.

With assistance varying between Greece and Turkey, and these natural disasters become more frequent, the EU’s firefighting capabilities must be reassessed. Currently, the EU assists mostly through mapping fires and coordinating other countries contributions. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism includes a ‘rescEU’ element which was established in 2019 to create reserves of equipment for emergencies covering health, nuclear, fire and other major disasters. Within this are seven firefighting planes and six helicopters, however these were made available by individual member states. The EU, therefore, does not have its own firefighting resources. As the effects of climate change become more apparent, the EU needs to build up firefighting capabilities to ensure that particularly vulnerable nations do not have to bear the brunt of climate change and further intensify existing inequalities. Establishing these capabilities will enhance the EU’s ability to mitigate the devastating impacts of wildfires, reduce dependency on member states and guarantee that resources are dispersed accordingly.

The Turkish and Greek wildfires have further brought to light the way in which security and climate increasingly intersect, and the practical shortcomings of the EU’s current climate strategy in the face of extreme weather events. While the EU’s 2018 ‘Threat Multiplier’ paper promised to take a security-led approach to climate issues, the focus on reducing carbon emissions has somewhat overshadowed the complex, whole-of-society approach needed to respond to climate-induced crises. For example, encouraging trade and growth that will exacerbate climate stresses while advocating for emission targets is not only counterintuitive but may also lead to instability between states. The recent fires illustrate the need for an integrated security and climate policy, particularly given that the IPCC report released on the Monday 9th has been described as a “code red for humanity”, and a draft UN assessment is said to have called the Mediterranean a “climate change hotspot”. Managing future crises will require preventative measures, centering civil protection networks and ensuring that climate mainstreaming forms a robust European regional security strategy.

Eleni Koumoundouros

Eleni is the Research and Events Coordinator at the British Foreign Policy Group.