Disaster Responses May Lead to Peace, Say Researchers

Zoe Chafe
Zoë Chafe, co-author of Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace.

The devastation and social disruption caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters may, paradoxically, provide opportunities for building peace, say experts with the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C-based research organization. At a June 12 conference at United Nations headquarters in New York, researchers Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe presented their latest report, Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace to an audience of UN representatives and others. The authors based their conclusions largely on the effects of disasters on peacemaking in three conflict-affected regions: Indonesia’s Aceh province, Sri Lanka, and the contested territory of Kashmir.

The number of disasters—defined as natural hazards that kill 10 or more people, affect 100 or more people, or necessitate a declaration of emergency or call for international assistance—has increased significantly over the last two decades, according to Chafe. During this same period, the number of people affected by disasters has grown from an average of 209 million a year in 1987–96 to an average of 231 million a year in 1997–2006. Reasons for this rising toll include population growth and urbanization, which have forced more people to live in riskier areas, and greater environmental destruction, Chafe said.

Climate change, deforestation, wetland loss, and other forms of environmental degradation have led to more destructive disaster events, Chafe said, noting that these events could more appropriately be termed “unnatural” disasters due to the human hand behind many of them. Conversely, areas that were less disturbed by human activities or had more coastal vegetation fared better in the face of disaster. For instance, during the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami, a village in India’s Tamil Nadu state that had planted some 80,000 trees near the shore two years earlier suffered significantly less destruction than neighboring villages, Chafe reported.

Yet the devastation of disasters sometimes comes with a silver lining, according to Worldwatch’s Renner. In conflict-ridden Aceh, the 2004 tsunami was a “catalyzing shock that very decisively shifted the political landscape” and helped initiate successful peace negotiations, he explained. “If hardship after a disaster cuts across divides, it can create goodwill.” In contrast, the 2005 earthquake that struck Kashmir, a region under continued dispute between India and Pakistan, prompted substantial goodwill but parties failed to take full advantage of the post-disaster climate to reinvigorate a stalled peace process. And in Sri Lanka, which has experienced deadly clashes between the government and opposition groups, disputes over aid after the 2004 tsunami led to the breakdown of an existing ceasefire, Renner noted.

At the New York event, Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the United Nations, quibbled with the term “civil war” to describe the situation in Sri Lanka, preferring to call it a conflict between the government and a “terror group.” But he noted that Beyond Disasters “is a good effort, a very painstaking effort” and agreed that progress toward peace “depends on the history of the conflict.”

Ilan Kelman, host of the DisasterDiplomacy.org Web site, also struck a note of caution by arguing that there is but a narrow window of opportunity to act after a disaster hits: “In the longer term, non-disaster factors tend to dominate the diplomatic process.” And Devanand Ramiah with the UN Development Programme emphasized that creating a sustainable “peace architecture” was critical to success.

Among other recommendations, the Worldwatch report calls on governments, aid groups, affected communities, and other stakeholders to better integrate conflict-sensitive strategies into disaster relief plans, to conduct assessments of disaster risk in conflict zones, to minimize inequities in aid distribution, and to include representatives from all factions of a conflict in the decision-making process. Such conclusions represent what Renner called “hopeful signs, [and] hopeful lessons learned” from the research. Leading the luncheon discussion, Ismael Abraão Gaspar Martins, Angola’s permanent representative to the UN, commended the study and agreed with the authors that “disaster can act as a unifying force.”

The conference brought together a total of 20 participants from various UN agencies and departments for a morning workshop session moderated by Jürgen Stetten, director of the New York office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. This was followed by a luncheon event involving several UN ambassadors and other diplomats, UN Assistant Secretary-General Margareta Wahlström, and other UN staff, as well as analysts from nongovernmental organizations and academia. The event was made possible with the support and collaboration of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Global Policy Forum.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

Note: this story has been updated from its original version.