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global action > newsfile > 'disaster diplomacy' could save many lives

'Disaster diplomacy' could save many lives

Posted: 11 Jun 2007

Natural disasters strain the social and economic fabric of affected communities, often reinforcing inequalities and even triggering disputes. However, according to a new report, donor governments, disaster relief agencies, and others can capitalise on unusual peacemaking opportunities when disaster strikes in areas of acute conflict.

The report, by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, examines the recent disaster experiences of Indonesia's Aceh province, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir, among others, and suggests ways to better integrate disaster and conflict responses.

The human toll taken by natural disasters is increasing sharply, adding significantly to the list of deadly challenges faced by poor communities and countries worldwide. Recorded disasters nearly doubled between 1987 and 2006, while the number of people affected by these disasters increased more than 10 per cent. Women, children, and the elderly are among those most vulnerable.

"You can't talk about long-term security without recognizing the growing threat of disasters," said Michael Renner, one of the report's co-authors. "We play a role in worsening natural hazards and their effects - through population growth, climate change, and environmental degradation." 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.

Natural hazards - such as earthquakes or floods -need not always lead to disaster. They turn deadly when they hit vulnerable areas that lack early warning or risk management plans, or those suffering from inadequate city planning, poor food security, or deforestation. "The poor are hit hardest by disaster, and they often have limited resources available to 'build back better,'" said report co-author Zo� Chafe.

Case studies

Three case studies offer lessons in "disaster diplomacy" for governments, militaries, and others involved in disaster relief and conflict resolution: 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; and in Kashmir, post-earthquake goodwill was not enough to reinvigorate the stalled reconciliation process between India and Pakistan.

These divergent outcomes hinge on key factors, such as a government's ability to commit to a political solution, confront those opposing peace, and equitably distribute aid.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to conflict, and recommendations must reflect local priorities, the international community may reinforce shared interests and create maneuvering space for civil society after a disaster. "Relief groups, development agencies, economists, environmentalists, and conflict mediators can play a crucial role," said Chafe, "but only if they work together more proactively, building on one another's expertise."

The report concludes that the intersection of disasters, conflict, and peacemaking requires interdisciplinary responses from governments, international donors, and civil society. It makes the following recommendations:

Environmental protection

  • 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 socio-economic 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.

The report, Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace, costs $9.95 plus shipping and handling, and can be purchased through the Worldwatch website: www.worldwatch.org

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