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Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace

Co-authors of the new Worldwatch report, Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace, presented some of their main findings on how natural disasters in conflict zones can foster or hinder peace.

Date & Time

Jun. 28, 2007
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


When natural disasters befall conflict-ridden regions, they can reignite pre-existing disputes among the warring parties, as well as trigger new clashes over the distribution of relief and reconstruction resources. However, notes Michael Renner, a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute, "When disasters occur in conflict zones, they sometimes do have an unexpected silver lining. [B]y jolting the political landscape, disasters hold the potential to transform conflict dynamics and … generate opportunities to bring long-running disputes to an end." Renner and Worldwatch Research Associate Zoë Chafe, co-authors of the new Worldwatch report Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace, presented some of their main findings on how natural disasters in conflict zones can foster or hinder peace at a Wilson Center event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on June 28, 2007.

Recent Trends in Disasters

"When we talk about disasters, we usually talk about ‘natural disasters' because that's the term everyone is familiar with, but…at Worldwatch, we believe that they really are ‘unnatural disasters' in many ways," said Chafe. Environmental degradation has increased the frequency and severity of many disasters. For instance, the destruction of coral reefs and mangroves leaves coastal areas more vulnerable to tsunamis, hurricanes, and coastal flooding. Also, climate change has likely contributed to an increase in violent cyclones. "Meteorologists have seen an 80 percent increase in the most powerful types of cyclones and other types of hurricanes over the past 35 years, and they think that's because of the warming trends in the ocean's waters," said Chafe.

Another exacerbating factor is population growth, which forces people onto land that is highly susceptible to natural disasters. Poor people tend to suffer disproportionately from disasters because they often have no choice but to live in the most vulnerable areas, such as flood plains. Women, children, and the elderly also suffer disproportionately from disasters. Unlike men, women tend to spend much of the day in their homes, which are often structurally unsound. Also, many women in developing countries are not taught how to swim. After the disaster, women face harassment in refugee camps, and the poor sanitation that is endemic to the camps exacts a higher physical toll on pregnant women. Children and the elderly, who often lack the mobility to escape a natural disaster, are heavily dependent on their families, and they may face exploitation if they become separated from them.

Conflict Resolution in Aceh

The 2004 Asian tsunami that devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh ultimately helped bring peace to the region, said Renner: "The enormous scope of the tsunami's destruction served as a catalyzing shock that quite decisively shifted the political dynamics and in effect really reinforced what was already true on the popular level in Aceh: a very strong desire for peace." When the tsunami occurred, the Acehnese independence movement, GAM, had been fighting government forces for three decades, and the region had been under martial law for two years. Both the rebels and the government had already taken tentative steps toward a negotiated settlement, but the tsunami provided the necessary common ground and international attention to make negotiations succeed between GAM and Indonesia's newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Forced to come to terms with minimal international support for Acehnese independence, GAM's leaders agreed to negotiate. Yudhoyono, for his part, was committed to delivering on his campaign platform, which included resolving the Aceh conflict and democratizing Indonesia's political landscape.

Challenges remain in Aceh, however: combatants must be reintegrated into society, the economy revitalized, and a peaceful political transition ensured after the 2009 elections. Anita Sharma, executive director of the ENOUGH Project, noted that another problem is the disparity between the amount of aid available to tsunami survivors and that available to victims of violent conflict. As the Worldwatch report notes, tsunami victims usually receive $5,000-6,000 to rebuild their homes, whereas survivors of conflict typically receive only $3,500. Initially, to prevent tsunami aid from being politicized and to comply with the demands of the Indonesian government, international relief organizations kept aid pools separate, resulting in a lack of communication on who was getting how much financial support. Aid groups and governments soon realized, however, that sustainable recovery would be impossible without the existence of a relatively stable society, so projects directed at conflict and tsunami survivors began to coordinate and share information. There are still significant barriers to this cooperation, and its long-term effectiveness remains in question.

Escalating Violence in Sri Lanka

The same tsunami that hit Aceh devastated Sri Lanka, but the post-disaster experiences of the two areas have been very different. Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils since 1983. Although the two sides signed a peace agreement in 2002, Renner observed that "the cease-fire negotiations were driven more by a sense of military stalemate and by a very severe economic crisis than by a real readiness to compromise and to come to a political settlement." Consequently, the agreement contained significant problems, such as its failure to include groups other than the Sinhalese and the Tamils or address human rights violations.

As in Aceh, the tsunami caused a groundswell of goodwill in Sri Lanka. It lasted only two or three weeks, however, and did not translate into greater political flexibility or willingness to negotiate. Although public opinion polls at the time showed a strong preference for peace, leaders on both sides felt that their interests were better served by continuing to fight. Hardliner opinions dominated more moderate attitudes. Even the massive international aid that poured into Sri Lanka became a point of contention, not cooperation. "It turned out that control over aid was an intensely political and polarizing issue, very closely connected with the totally unresolved question of how Sri Lanka should be governed," said Renner. Although the 2002 peace agreement still exists on paper, violence has escalated dramatically since the tsunami. Deaths in the civil war had dropped to a trickle during 2002-2004, but then rose to approximately 300 in 2005 and skyrocketed to over 4,000 in 2006.

Mutual Distrust in Kashmir

India and Pakistan have fought over Kashmir since the Indian subcontinent's division in 1947. When an earthquake ravaged Kashmir in October 2005, goodwill between the two countries led to India donating food, medicine, tents, and infrastructural support to Pakistan. But mutual distrust soon stymied more far-reaching collaboration. For example, landslides and ruined roads made helicopters essential, so India offered to lend its military helicopters to joint search-and-rescue missions. However, Pakistan did not want Indians piloting the helicopters; and because India refused to let Pakistani pilots fly the aircraft, no arrangement was ever brokered. Although the earthquake did not resolve the conflict over Kashmir, it did produce some positive developments between India and Pakistan, such as a six-fold increase in bilateral trade.

An Ounce of Prevention

Renner and Chafe encouraged aid organizations and donor governments to take a proactive approach to disaster relief and reconstruction. They recommended the creation of aid-sharing scenarios prior to the occurrence of natural disasters, the implementation of a comprehensive study of past conflict-disaster interfaces, and the establishment of a forum where the recommendations from that study can be discussed and implemented.

All three speakers agreed that it is critically important to improve communication and coordination among various types of relief organizations. Sharma noted that it has been difficult enough for immediate life-saving agencies and long-term recovery agencies to cooperate effectively, and that the challenges are even greater for coordination between disaster and conflict organizations. She was hopeful, nonetheless, that the Worldwatch report would spur more integration of disaster and conflict relief efforts.

Chafe was also optimistic about future prospects for collaboration. When she and Renner first started their research, few people were studying natural disasters and conflict: "[It was] very difficult to find people who were actually working on the ground in both areas," she said. But the tides are turning: "We are seeing quite a bit of support now from the aid community, and I think within the conflict community, too, so I'm hoping that means that there is more of a willingness to work together."

Drafted by Rachel Weisshaar.


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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Urban Sustainability Laboratory

Since 1991, the Urban Sustainability Laboratory has advanced solutions to urban challenges—such as poverty, exclusion, insecurity, and environmental degradation—by promoting evidence-based research to support sustainable, equitable and peaceful cities.  Read more

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