Rising Toll From Disasters Underscores Need For Humanitarian, Political Action

Washington, D.C.—Conflict and “un-natural” disasters have taken a heavy toll in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, yet new analysis from the Worldwatch Institute shows important lessons can be learned from the countries’ differing responses to these difficult circumstances. In Indonesia’s Aceh province, the December 2004 tsunami killed some 170,000 people, more than ten times as many as perished in Aceh’s 29-year war for independence. The disaster convinced the government and rebels that peace was indispensable for rebuilding. But in Sri Lanka, where the toll of the 1983-2002 civil war far surpassed the number of tsunami victims, bickering over tsunami aid reinforced ethnic and political divisions that may lead to resumed conflict.

“While grim in its origin, post-disaster humanitarian action can be a powerful catalyst for overcoming deep human divides,” says Michael Renner, Senior Researcher and Director of the Institute's Global Security Project. “But humanitarian impulses must be translated into tangible political change, or else lasting peace may not be achieved.”

Renner recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Aceh, where he observed unexpectedly positive developments in the current peace process. But Renner cautions that the world community needs to keep close watch on this process to prevent backsliding and to reinvigorate a sluggish reconstruction effort that could become, in itself, a cause for resentment and new conflict.

In recognition of the dramatic rise in the numbers and impacts of disasters worldwide, Worldwatch has initiated a major research and public policy project on “un-natural” disasters, conflict, and peacemaking. Many of the earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods that battered the globe last year can be categorized as “un-natural disasters” because their impact was greatly exacerbated by human actions—including wetlands destruction, global warming, and population growth.

“The global toll from disasters has climbed significantly over the past twenty years,” explains Worldwatch Staff Researcher Zoë Chafe, co-contributor to the project. In 2005, nearly 125 million people were injured, lost their home, or required other immediate assistance as a result of disasters.  Over 100,000 lives were lost, in addition to the 230,000 people killed by the tsunami at the end of 2004. Total economic damages in 2005 reached a record $200 billion, including $125 billion in losses from Hurricane Katrina alone. The single greatest human toll followed the October earthquake in Pakistan and India, a disaster that continues to claim lives as survivors face harsh winter conditions.  

The Institute’s new project focuses on the effects of disasters in areas already stressed by violent conflict. Activities and outputs include:

  • An assessment of human-influenced disaster trends, and the prospects for peacemaking in Aceh and Sri Lanka, in Worldwatch’s newly released State of the World 2006 report.
  • A series of Policy Briefs analyzing specific cases where conflict and disaster have intersected, for the purpose of distilling key lessons and making policy recommendations.
  • A new Worldwatch web portal that presents current disaster trends, provides opinion pieces and analysis, offers links to information from partner organizations, and details the Institute’s research activities and speaking engagements on disasters and peacemaking.

As illustrated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent earthquake in Kashmir, disasters devastate neighborhoods and disable basic community services, leading to economic and political insecurity. Renner and Chafe stress that “humanitarian peacemaking”—conciliatory steps taken in conflict zones in the aftermath of disasters—should be complemented by “environmental peacemaking”: joint projects to protect critical ecosystems carried out by neighboring states that find it difficult to cooperate on other issues.

The international community now has a crucial role to play. Beyond diplomatic efforts to monitor peacemaking, it is imperative that global leaders address the role of human-induced climate change in global weather patterns. Over the next few decades, the number of people living in disaster-prone areas will continue to grow, greatly increasing the vulnerability of many communities as they face more frequent and more intense storms, floods, and droughts. Pragmatic government leadership on climate change and disaster preparedness can save lives and reduce economic damages in the years to come.

Note to Editors: 

Interviews: Michael Renner traveled to Aceh in December for an in-depth look at the post-tsunami and post-conflict situation.  To interview him, or to interview Zoë Chafe about disaster trends and developments, please contact Darcey Rakestraw at 202.452.1992 x 517 or drakestraw@worldwatch.org.

Web-Based Press Resources on Un-Natural Disasters: More information about this project is available at http://www.worldwatch.org/features/disasters/.