Disaster-Conflict Interface: One Abets the Other, but 'Governance is a Key Enabler'

12 Sep 2011

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GENEVA—Disasters and conflicts frequently occur together, often devastating countries that are least able to sustain them, but good governance can speed recovery and lessen the likelihood of recurrence, according to a new UNDP study.

In most instances, the disaster-conflict interface increased the risk of future crises and hampered crisis recovery efforts,” says Maxx Dilley, Officer in Charge of UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention & Recovery (BCPR) Disaster Risk Reduction and RecoveryTeam and author of the study “Disaster-Conflict Interface.”

The report examines interactions between conflict and disasters associated with natural hazards. It presents an unprecedented survey of cases in which conflict and disaster coincide—each a complex phenomenon in its own right, as in the worsening Horn of Africa crisis.

In all case studies, conflict was found to have an adverse impact on disasters where both are present,” Dilley says. Taken together, these cases “highlight the importance of governance as a key enabler of both disaster reduction and conflict prevention.”

The study argues for developing an integrated pool of staff with expertise in conflict and disaster risk-management, but also including governance, environment, and poverty practitioners, he says.

The unfolding famine in the Horn of Africa—now facing its worst drought in 60 years—is a case in point. Long-running conflict has increased vulnerability to drought and severely hampered humanitarian access to the worst-affected areas, triggering a flood of famine refugees.

U.N. officials this week said Somalia’s famine has spread to a sixth region and warned at least 750,000 people are at risk of dying in the next four months in the absence of scaled-up aid. Tens of thousands have already died, mostly children.

“This makes the humanitarian response more complex, imposes additional stress on host communities which are themselves affected by the drought, and heightens the risk of conflict over resources,” Dilley says.“Increased inter-communal violence has been reported throughout the drought-affected rural areas due to the scarce availability of water and pastures.”

A comprehensive response must include scaled-up support for more responsive, accountable, and resilient governances, he said.

Following is an interview with Maxx Dilley, Officer in Charge of UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention & Recovery (BCPR) Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery Team and author of the study “Disaster-Conflict Interface.”

What prompted this report?

“The Disaster-Conflict Interface study was undertaken as a jointeffort to improve the evidence base for pursuing crisis prevention and recovery comprehensively when both disasters and conflicts, or related risks, are present. The study was intended to inform the broader practice of crisis prevention and recovery—in an environment in which disaster losses continue to rise: In 2010, 373 natural events, such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones,volcanic eruptions, and droughts, affected some 208 million people, causing 300,000 deaths, and producing economic losses estimated at US$110 billion.

“More than 80 countries are meanwhile identified as facing violent tensions, and 22 of the 34 countries furthest from reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are in the midst of or emerging from violent conflict. As you can see right now in the Horn of Africa, many of these countries are highly exposed, and vulnerable, to natural hazards as well.

“In cases such as the Horn of Africa, where a major hazard event has occurred in a context of conflict and heightened conflict tensions, BCPR is working with UNDP Country Offices to ensure that their recovery and long-term risk reduction programmes address both conflict and disasters holistically.This includes, for example, addressing hazard-related risks through livelihood programmes that also promote conflict recovery, and addressing conflict risk factors through programmes that provide immediate drought recovery assistance.”

What do you want policy advisers to take away from this study?

“The case studies highlight the importance of governance as a key enabler of both disaster reduction and conflict prevention. Conflict-ridden countries have difficulty attaining the necessary level of social cohesion needed to address the root causes of disasters. Conflict inhibits development broadly, including increasing disaster risks and losses due to increased vulnerability to natural hazards. Conversely, reduction of disaster losses contributes to sustainable development and therefore—at least indirectly—to reduced conflict risk.

“The case studies suggest that potential exists for addressing the disaster-conflict interface more systematically. For example, the research for this study identified a significant variation in the capacities, approaches, and prioritization of these issues across the nine UNDP Country Offices. In most cases, staff were in the initial stages of learning about these issues and related programming approaches. Awareness-raising, advocacy, and capacity development must all be scaled up.”

What did you aim to achieve with this study? Has this nexus been studied at UNDP in the past?

“This bureau, BCPR, launched the study to explore the interface between conflicts and disasters through an empirical approach based on actual country cases—it’s the very first study on this topic undertaken in UNDP. BCPR is working in many developing countries that experience both disasters and conflict at the same time.

“Contexts in which conflicts and disasters overlap are daily realities for people who are affected, as well as for many humanitarian and development practitioners. Effective programmes to manage crisis interventions need to reflect conflict-disaster complexities and respond to them in a holistic and integrative manner. Experience has also shown that development interventions that fail to recognize the link between disasters and conflict in at-risk countries can worsen tensions and increase risk. While intuitively it makes sense to assume that the geographical overlap of both disaster and conflict worsens the impact of crises, evidence for this is limited. Analyses of concrete case study observations are also limited, and those that do exist come from different unconnected disciplines. In an effort to share the experience in operating in conflict-disaster interface settings, BCPR undertook this analysis in 2007.

“The study aims to achieve a comparative analysis of tendencies and experiences that stem from the relationship between disasters and conflict. It also analyses the relative success of existing relevant programming approaches adopted in-country. This will help identify practical approaches and disseminate good practice, helping to better equip UNDP Country Office staff who operate in complex environments in which disaster and conflict overlap.”

You focused on examples from nine countries. Which disaster-conflict interactions struck you most vividly? What did they have incommon?

“The study is based on experiences from nine selected case-study countries: Bolivia, Haiti, Indonesia (Aceh), Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Each case study analyses the dynamics of the interface, as well as strategies and interventions across agencies, and particularly focuses on UNDP approaches and good practices.

“A disaster-conflict interface happens when disasters (risks, events, and recovery) have a relationship with conflicts (risks, events, and recovery) and/or vice versa, beyond simple geographic/demographic co-location. Each interface is a complex phenomenon in its own right. But commonalities recur. In all case studies, conflict had a harmful impact on disasters. In most instances, the disaster-conflict interface increased the risk of future crises and hampered crisis recovery efforts. This was particularly obvious at the local level, with widespread examples of problematic interactions between disasters and conflict.

In most case studies examined, the interface of disasters and conflicts was overwhelmingly harmful, worsening the risk of future crises and hampering crisis recovery efforts. In all case studies, conflict was found to have an adverse impact on disasters.”