Chapter 7: Turning Disasters into Peacemaking Opportunities

Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe

As the world watched in 2004 and 2005, what began as the stories of powerful storms and earthquakes slowly emerged as tales of immense human suffering, environmental destruction, and gross socioeconomic inequities—exposing the underbelly of rich and poor countries alike. These disasters have revealed, in horrific detail, that poverty and the decay of key ecosystems can make storms, floods, and earthquakes far more lethal. (See Figure 7.2, p. 118.)

Yet there is reason for hope. In some places where the destructive forces of conflict and disaster do overlap, devastation eventually gives way to new opportunities for peace and reconciliation. The December 2004 tsunami that devastated Aceh in Indonesia kick-started negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted for almost 30 years and led to widespread violence and displacement. Before the tsunami, peace negotiations between Acehnese rebels and the Indonesian government had collapsed in May 2003, leading to the imposition of martial law.

A rush of post-disaster goodwill alone is unlikely to carry warring factions through the complexities and stumbling blocks of a peace process. To maintain momentum, humanitarianism needs to be transformed into political change—addressing the root causes of the conflict at hand, putting in place confidence-building measures, and taking on the vested interests of those who benefit from a continuation of conflict. Policymakers and humanitarian groups must be proactive in dealing with the remnants of conflict, designing a rebuilding process that addresses the social and economic needs of ex-fighters and disaster victims alike and calling for sustainable and equitable development that reduces the likelihood of recurring conflict as much as the vulnerability to future disasters. (See Table 7-4, p. 131.)

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher and Director of the Global Security Project and Zoë Chafe is a Staff Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.