Key Points - Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace
There is growing recognition that disasters are caused by human impacts on the natural environment as well as by short-sighted and inappropriate development patterns, settlements in increasingly vulnerable areas, and socioeconomic divides and inequities.
Disasters are connected in important ways to a range of social, environmental, and ultimately political challenges faced by humanity, including environmental degradation, climate change, population and housing, poverty and inequality, and human security and peacemaking.
The March Toward Disaster
While humans have little ability to control natural hazards, much more can be done to understand vulnerability and to use risk-management tactics to prevent future devastation. As drought, flooding, erratic weather, and extreme temperatures are on the rise, so are the disasters that often follow these phenomena.
Recorded disasters nearly doubled between 1987 and 2006, while the number of people affected by these disasters increased more than 10 percent. Women, children, and the elderly are among those most vulnerable, and aid organizations are struggling to keep up with the rising disaster toll.
An average of 348 disasters—nearly one per day—has been recorded each year over the past decade, with a billion people affected or injured by floods alone over this period.
Heightened attention to certain high-profile events obscures the fact that persistent, localized disasters occur each and every day, most of which generate little or no response.
Understanding Factors of Vulnerability
Disasters provoked by storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and other hazards often compromise human security, exacting a heavy economic toll and undermining livelihoods. While often temporary, in many cases disaster also impairs the long-term habitability or economic viability of the affected area.
Economic and ecological marginalization leaves poor and disempowered communities exceptionally vulnerable to disasters. Countries with a low human development score account for 53 percent of recorded deaths from disasters, even though these countries are home to only 11 percent of the people exposed to natural hazards worldwide.
Children, women, and the elderly are among the most vulnerable when disaster strikes.
Storm Clouds and Silver Linings
Human reactions often reinforce the unequal impacts of disasters. In extreme cases, governments that fail to adequately and fairly manage disasters could sow the seeds of violent conflict.
When disasters occur in conflict zones, they can bring about an unexpected silver lining: the opportunity for peace. Disasters may inflict suffering that cuts across existing divides, temporarily triggering acts of goodwill or mutual solidarity and creating common relief needs.
A key factor to the success of peacemaking efforts is the commitment of political leaders to initiate meetings or to respond constructively to such overtures by opponents. To succeed, peacemaking efforts need to take into account the interests and motivations of political rivals, public pressure, media and other opinion shapers, and outside powers.
International aid workers, donors, and mediators who appear on the scene after a disaster may need to plan an assertive role in encouraging warring parties to resolve their conflict or at least adopt a ceasefire.
In Aceh, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami served as a catalyzing shock that cemented the collective determination to make peace.
Sri Lanka had a ceasefire in place when the tsunami struck, but struggles over disaster reconstruction aid reinforced the island’s divides and contributed to renewed warfare.
In Kashmir, post-earthquake goodwill was not enough to reinvigorate the stalled reconciliation process between India and Pakistan.
Creating Future Opportunities for Peace—Key Recommendations
Disaster aid and conflict resolution are often seen by humanitarian groups as separate realms. But political contexts always shape aid and recovery work. Greater conflict sensitivity is critical.
Disaster-relief agencies should anticipate and actively avoid fueling local divisions and resentment. In particular, inequities in the aid given to disaster- and conflict-affected communities need to be minimized.
A rights-based approach—ensuring that affected communities are adequately represented in all decision-making—is important in any needs assessment.
Environmental protection and restoration are key to disaster mitigation. Yet, like aid workers, environmentalists need to be conscious of socioeconomic and political realities. The poor often have no choice but to settle in vulnerable areas.
Diplomats and mediators need to see post-disaster relief as an opportunity for conflict resolution, as non-traditional factors such as environmental degradation and livelihood loss increasingly influence conflict situations.