Natural Disasters & Peacemaking Project Overview

"Turning Disasters into Peacemaking Opportunities"
The Worldwatch Institute has launched a two-year project addressing the intersections between natural disasters, environmental degradation, conflict, and peacemaking. Researchers Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe co-authored a chapter on disasters in Worldwatch's State of the World 2006 report and will examine these connections in a range of additional articles, op-eds, and publications.

Disasters and Conflict
Over the past few months, powerful storms and earthquakes ravaged various regions across the world. They destroyed dwellings and other infrastructure, resulted in job losses, and damaged fisheries and agriculture. The media spotlight cast around these natural disasters has exposed immense human suffering, environmental destruction, and gross socioeconomic inequities aspects that can exacerbate the direct effects of the disasters.

In some cases, the destructive forces of conflict and disaster overlap. New opportunities for peace and reconciliation may emerge as suffering cuts across the divides of conflict, prompting common relief needs. Reconstruction may only be able to proceed if a ceasefire or peace agreement is negotiated.

The Worldwatch project on disasters and peacemaking will examine a range of cases, including the situation in Aceh (Indonesia) and Sri Lanka after the December 2004 tsunami, Indo-Pakistani relations following the Kashmir earthquake of October 2005, earthquake diplomacy between Turkey and Greece, and other cases.

Peacemaking Through Relief and Rebuilding
Humanitarian assistance from the United Nations, donor nations aid agencies, and NGOs usually prompt an influx of foreigners to disaster areas and accompanying media attention. This attention may enhance transparency and discourage continued violence or human rights abuses. A key challenge is overcoming the resistance of those who benefit, politically or materially, from the continuation of conflict.

The relief development continuum may present challenges in post-disaster situations. Some organizations and agencies focus on rapid relief efforts, while others tackle reconstruction and development with a focus on sustainability. They may disagree on tactics and priorities. For example, rebuilding can put pressure on natural resources such as forests. Without proper attention to environmental impacts, it may leave an area more vulnerable to future disasters. Environmental restoration, however, can play a critical role in reducing vulnerability while fostering social and economic structures that are less conducive to future conflict.

Peacemaking overtures do not necessarily emerge out of post-disaster situations. For instance, small-scale and slow-onset disasters may not generate the sudden drama necessary to jolt warring parties or to capture the world s attention and sympathies. Political leaders may not have the courage or wisdom to take advantage of peacemaking opportunities when presented with them.

For instance, when the Iranian city of Bam was destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, U.S. medical personnel and supplies were sent, but the gesture of goodwill failed to thaw the icy relations between the two countries. Likewise, an Iranian offer to send 20 million barrels of crude oil to alleviate energy shortages in the wake of Hurricane Katrina did not lead to any diplomatic breakthroughs.

This project is part of Worldwatch's work on Redefining Global Security and is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Natural Disasters & Peacemaking Project Leaders: Michael Renner, Zoë Chafe.