Disasters often have severe impacts on human security. But how do disasters impact armed conflict dynamics? When striking armed conflict zones, disasters indeed frequently trigger higher fighting intensity, confirming concerns about a climate-conflict nexus. However, this effect only occurs in a minority of cases, specifically in locations with a high disaster vulnerability. More importantly, disasters can also reduce civil war intensity, for instance by posing logistical challenges to armed groups. While such effects are often short term, they provide important windows of opportunity for relief provision and diplomacy, writes Tobias Ide.
When disasters like droughts, earthquakes, floods, and storms strike vulnerable areas, the consequences can be devastating. This is particularly the case in places with active armed conflicts, as demonstrated by the recent floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, droughts in the Horn of Africa, and the massive earthquake in Syria (and Turkey). In armed conflict zones, several factors increase vulnerability to and complicate recovery from disasters. These include insufficient early warning systems, the battle-related destruction of important infrastructure (e.g., hospitals, power plants), a state incapable of or unwilling to implement prevention measures (e.g., building codes), and unsafe conditions for relief workers. According to some studies, disaster-related deaths are 40% higher in areas with a history of armed conflict.
While discussions such as the above have focused on the effect of armed conflicts on disaster recovery efforts, fewer have sought to ask how disasters impact conflict dynamics. What happens if disasters strike civil war-ridden areas? Does fighting become more intensive? Will the government or rebel forces back down to allow aid delivery? And what does this mean for aid workers and diplomats?
My recently published book titled Catastrophes, Confrontations, and Constraints: How Disasters Shape the Dynamics of Armed Conflicts seeks to address these questions. The book analyses 36 cases of disaster-conflict intersections from 21 countries based on desk-based case studies, expert interviews, and quantitative data. I focussed on countries and areas with an active civil war that were struck by a large-scale disaster to understand how disasters affect conflict risks. Choosing a medium number of cases provided me with the opportunity to combine in-depth qualitative insights with systematic statistical procedures — two approaches that are often kept separate in climate security and disaster conflict research. Below, I briefly detail two main lessons from the book: that the vulnerability of certain contexts to disasters can affect their vulnerability to conflict intensification, and that disasters don’t affect armed conflict dynamics in a unidirectional way, nor in the same ways in different countries.
Vulnerability matters for how armed conflict parties respond to disasters.
One of the key findings of the book is that vulnerability matters. This might not come as a big surprise because the cases analysed in the book all experienced major disasters, most of which caused more than 1,000 deaths. By definition, places suffering such disasters are quite vulnerable to the effects of extreme natural events.
However, vulnerability also matters for the behaviour of the armed conflict parties. Only in countries whose economies are highly dependent on agriculture and where poverty rates are very high, and where disaster impacts are hence often very severe, we can detect a disaster-related change in conflict intensity. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, for instance, affected almost 20% of the country’s territory, displaced around 20 million people, and caused a direct economic damage of USD 9.7 billion. The disaster impacts were so severe due to political instability and socio-economic underdevelopment, and posed enormous logistical challenges to both the state military and the insurgent forces. Put differently: Only if such vulnerability factors are present, the societal impacts of disasters are far-reaching enough to affect decision making by government militaries or rebel groups.
The impact of disasters on armed conflict dynamics is multifaceted.
Furthermore, the impact of disasters on armed conflict dynamics is multifaceted rather than unidirectional. For example, in around half of the countries I studied, disasters had no relevant impact on the armed conflict at all. For about one-quarter of the countries, fighting activities intensified after the disasters took place. This usually happens when the government troops are adversely affected by the disaster while the rebels remain largely unaffected or can even capitalise on the disaster. After the 1999 earthquake in Colombia, for instance, the government deployed 6,000 state security forces to the affected areas and cut down on social programs to win hearts and minds in contested regions – a situation the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were happy to exploit. I observed similar dynamics after the 1998 floods in Assam (India), the 1999–2001 drought in Uganda, the 1990 Luzon earthquake in the Philippines, and the 1994 floods in Egypt, among others.
Yet, in another one-quarter of the cases I studied, disasters facilitated a de-escalation of the armed conflict. After the 1997 floods in Somalia, for instance, both competing United Somali Congress (USC) fractions faced problems paying and feeding (and moving around) their troops due to an agricultural collapse in the southern “breadbasket” regions. Rebel groups faced similar problems during COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance in Iraq or Thailand (the book has a separate chapter on the effect of COVID-19 on armed conflicts). Civil wars also de-escalated significantly after other disasters I studied, such as cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh (2007) or the 2005-2006 drought in Burundi.
These results are partially in line with claims that climate change and environmental stress increase armed conflict risks, for instance when disasters trigger more intense fighting during civil wars. However, this impact is not deterministic, but only happens in certain contexts: Most disasters had no impacts on armed conflict intensity. Neither is the disaster-conflict nexus unidirectional: In one out of four cases, the disaster facilitated a de-escalation of fighting. While this effect was often temporal and rarely lasted more than twelve months, it might open up important windows of opportunity to deliver aid and promote diplomacy.
Addressing the root causes of vulnerability first and foremost
Based on these insights, what can be done about disasters striking conflict zones? To start with, some of the factors that increase disaster vulnerability are the same that make armed conflict onset and disaster-related conflict intensification more likely: widespread poverty, persistent inequality, or dysfunctional state institutions. Addressing these factors can hence provide benefits on multiple fronts, including for disaster risk reduction, economic development, and security policies.
Protecting disaster relief workers
On a more pragmatic level (and in shorter time horizon), the safety of both national and international disaster relief providers is an important concern. In the past ten years, more than 1,200 aid workers have been killed and many more attacked in conflict areas, with a clear upward trend. If disasters weaken one conflict party and the other side cannot exploit it (because it is too weak, suffers from the disaster as well, or needs to restrain to avoid public backlash), conflict intensity is likely to decline. This provides a window of opportunity to negotiate the safe delivery of humanitarian aid and to upscale diplomatic efforts.
By contrast, if the rebels benefit relative to the government, the conflict is likely to escalate after the disaster. In such a situation, anyone involved in the delivery of relief or reconstruction in the respective area needs to be alerted. Negotiated agreements with the rebels and pro-government forces or increased public pressure on conflict parties to allow safe aid delivery are possible courses of action in such a situation.
Starting discussions on disaster-conflict intersections
Lastly, an informed discussion about disaster-conflict intersections is of utmost importance, particularly among growing concerns about climate security. Areas affected by both phenomena are most likely to need additional support (by local, national, and international actors), yet are also hardest to navigate for those seeking to provide this support.
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About the author:
Tobias Ide is Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University Perth and Specially Appointed Professor for Peace and Sustainability at Hiroshima University. He has published widely on the impacts of environmental change and security and consulted NATO, the World Bank, and the United Nations, among others.
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