EXPERTISE SERVICES: DRR VOICES BLOG
Katie Peters has been a Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) since 2011. Leading ODI’s portfolio on the intersection of natural hazard-related disasters, climate change and conflict, her research focuses on disaster risk reduction in fragile and conflict affected states, the relationship between climate change and conflict, and the securitisation of climate change. She has worked extensively across Asia, Africa, and the Pacific.
In a week when Cyclone Luban is heading towards Oman and Yemen and several US states have declared a state of emergency, the importance of accelerating action on disaster risk reduction (DRR) has never been more acute.
But imagine contending with drought, floods, or other natural hazards, while also living in an area affected by high levels of violence, intercommunal conflict or where armed groups operate. These conditions can force communities to move to areas more exposed to hazards, undermine livelihoods – giving people less financial flexibility to invest in disaster mitigation or preparedness measures – and destroy early warning infrastructure. Now imagine receiving little support to contend with the former, because of the latter.
Although often forgotten, the need for DRR in contexts of conflict is pressing – because it is in these contexts that the people most vulnerable to hazards live. But why then is it still a neglected area of work? A new ODI report launched at the Africa-Arab Platform on DRR argues that ‘this deeper understanding of disaster risk can be politically unpalatable for some governments’. Not only does it move away from the relative safety of apolitical and technocentric approaches to risk reduction, it brings issues of power and politics to the fore. It raises questions about why some individuals or groups are more vulnerable to hazards than others; and often this has to do with issues of power, politics and the inequitable distribution of resources.
When you’re trying to champion a topic that’s not politically palatable, you end up wondering if you’re only complicating an already complex issue. If we want to promote effective DRR, and doing so without mentioning the term ‘conflict’ makes it that much easier to gain support in the political sphere, then why push it? After all, it was a major point of contention in the Sendai Framework negotiations where some – myself included – advocated for the explicit recognition and inclusion of ‘conflict as an underlying driver of vulnerability to disaster risk’. In hindsight, I would agree, it’s better to have a global framework (even one that doesn’t consider conflict) than to risk not having one at all.
But now that we have a global framework, how do we deliver it in ways that genuinely leaves no one behind? Since my initial research on the disaster-conflict nexus back in 2013, and after more than six years of calling for greater focus on the theme, I began to wonder whether it may be necessary to resign to using the term ‘natural disasters’ in my discussions with governments – if it means that doors open and there is political willingness to engage.
But in Tunis this week, I felt a growing sense of optimism. We knew in advance of the Africa-Arab Platform that ‘DRR in conflict contexts’ was going to receive some much-warranted attention at a Special Session in the formal programme. To my surprise, Krisi Madi, Director of UNISDR, made this a focus of her opening address, describing the challenge of addressing disasters and climate change as drivers of conflict and the need for greater attention to DRR in conflict contexts.
Commitments have been made by African and Arab states who are striving to deliver the Sendai Framework targets. But three years on from its commencement, we still know relatively little about how to effectively pursue DRR in contexts of violent conflict. We know little about how to adapt conventional DRR approaches to difficult operating environments, or how to effectively track progress.
While the regional African and Arab DRR strategies mention conflict as part of their overall description of the challenging contexts in which DRR ambitions are pursed, more needs to be done to translate this recognition into a nuanced understanding of what types of DRR actions are viable and appropriate in contexts of violent conflict.
I believe that the DRR community has valuable experience to offer in addressing this gap. Throughout the week, we heard examples from operational organisations in Yemen pursuing DRR in urban contexts of mass conflict displacement; we heard from DRR experts in Lebanon using school safety programmes as an entry point for conflict preparedness; and we heard ministers from various countries including Somalia and South Sudan call for DRR approaches tailored to conflict contexts to be a major focus moving forward.
And there’s a clear way to do this. Normally, efforts to understand and act on disaster risk start with the hazard. But what if we started with the context or the conditions in which disaster risk materialises? Working on DRR in conflict contexts could not only provide a means to genuinely ‘leave no one behind’ but offer new insight into how to effectively pursue DRR more broadly, with or without violent conflict to contend with.
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