To understand how disasters relate to conflict and peace, reframe the starting point

New Security Beat

By Laura E. R. Peters

Is the world doomed to be ever-more tumultuous? For years, headlines have suggested that climate change causes or acts as a threat multiplier for violent conflicts. For example, climate change-influenced drought has been labeled a cause of the Syrian conflict and the war in Darfur. Natural hazard-related disasters (“disasters”) like earthquakes that are not related to climate change have also been connected to an increased risk of violent social conflict and political instability. The narratives are often that disasters displace people who then put pressure on already-strained resources and infrastructure in receiving areas, and that disaster-stricken people fight over limited resources in their struggle for survival.

However, every so often a hopeful headline suggests that these same types of disasters can bring people together and inspire altruism in times of crisis and encourage cooperation and peace between adversaries.

So which of these seemingly incompatible outcomes holds true? Do disasters cause conflict, or do disasters lead to increased cooperation and peace?

Across studies and geographies, the findings are unsatisfyingly inconclusive. Even meta-studies on these topics disagree with each other about the fundamental relationships between disaster, conflict, and peace. Why is it so challenging to reach a consensus?

In the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, I write with Ilan Kelman that this question will never lead us to a definitive answer, because the reality is much more complex. We argue that disasters do not create new conflict or peace, but disasters can reflect, reproduce, or rearrange ongoing processes of peace and conflict—and their undercurrents.

Revisiting the foundations of disaster research, conflict research, and peace research

Disasters and conflicts are often depicted as distinct and extreme events that “strike” or “erupt.” But, disasters are more than storms. Conflicts are more than battles. And peace is more than the signing of a peace agreement. Disaster, conflict, and peace events like these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and we can and must dive deeper to see the dynamics and processes beneath the surface

We know that disasters are not natural, inevitable, or random occurrences, nor are they exogenous to the local settings in which they occur. Disasters are created through long-term societal processes, histories, and patterns. Natural hazards, including those related to climate change, do not cause disasters: human action and inaction turn a hazard event into a disaster. Simply put, people need to be located in harm’s way and be susceptible to that harm in order for a disaster to occur.

Conflict and peace are also woven into the fabric of society. Conflict is an inherent part of human interactions, and occurs when people perceive that they have different and incompatible objectives. Conflict can be pursued violently or nonviolently, and conflict can even be a driving force behind positive societal changes.

Peace is often thought of as the termination or absence of violence that may be marked by the signing of a peace agreement or ceasefire, but expanded understandings of positive peace—“the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies”—go beyond the absence of violence to take into consideration things like social justice and cooperative relationships. The concepts of conflict and peace are not mutually exclusive, and indeed each can be observed even where one predominates. For example, anti-war or peace movements can occur in the midst of war.

Building bridges between concepts

These foundational concepts are not new, but we argue that they are often overlooked by disaster-conflict and disaster-peace research seeking to isolate simple cause-effect relationships that play out in short timeframes. For example, it is problematic to wholly define disasters, conflicts, and peace by the events associated with them and to measure them solely via death and damage figures that are offered in disaster and conflict datasets like EM-DAT, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), and UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset. Event-based analysis can lend itself toward advancing understanding, but only insofar as it is situated in a long-term process of change that extends well before and after events take place. “Returning to normal” from disasters and conflicts is often seen as the goal of recovery, but recovering the status quo often recreates the same vulnerabilities and inequalities that led to disaster and conflict in the first place.

Disasters and conflicts are often seen as purely destructive, but both have the potential to lead to positive changes in societies. Indeed, disasters may even offer a “window of opportunity” to resolve conflicts. A field of research called “disaster diplomacy” asks the core questions of how and why disasters and disaster-related activities before, during, and after disasters do and do not influence different forms of conflict and peace. This body of literature has found that disasters and their related activities such as disaster risk reduction and disaster recovery may provide short-term opportunities to create peace, but pre-disaster conditions play a strong guiding role in determining post-disaster outcomes. These findings take us a step closer toward understanding how disaster impacts conflict and peace from a more process-oriented lens. But much work remains to develop more detailed and nuanced questions about co-occurring forms of conflict and peace that take place at overlapping scales of analysis.

Embracing complexity to reduce risks

The evidence is increasingly mounting that disasters and conflicts are bound in complex systems of risk embedded in long-term and slow social processes of change and inertia. That change can be destructive, or it can be positive, moving away from cycles of disasters and conflicts and toward capacity building and cooperation. We need to reframe questions away from assuming fatalistic or deterministic relationships (for example, that disasters and climate change cause conflicts) and start asking questions that illuminate specific pathways that reduce disaster risks while building peace.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned, “…We are in a world in which global challenges are more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented. And, if these are not reversed, it is a recipe for disaster.” One of the problems with securitized approaches to disaster management is that they fragment responses by treating people as risks and not assets. Disasters do not unilaterally unleash disorder or harmony on societies; the systems we create and the decisions we make determine disaster risks and the cascading consequences for ongoing conflict and peace processes. Thus, to realize a more peaceful world, disaster risk reduction and response must strengthen integrated systems, institutions, and decision-making that bring people together and promote social justice, human rights, and social-environmental wellbeing. Could disaster-related activities, including disaster response, be used as starting points for reducing the vulnerabilities and building the capacities we need to flourish in a changing world? This is well within our capacity—it is a matter of choice.

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