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Disaster Diplomacy Projects and Ideas

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Michael Glantz (August 2001)

"Climate-Related Flashpoints:  A Useful Notion for Early Warning?"
Editorial by Michael Glantz in The ENSO Signal, Issue 18, August 2001 (reproduced with permission)

Search on the Internet for the word "flashpoints" and you will come up with scores of websites that use the term somewhere in their description. Many use it in their title, however, mainly in reference to military and political issues.

Flashpoints can be viewed as a catalyst to change, often an abrupt change that can lead to military or political conflict. Identifying potential flashpoints between or within countries in advance can be used to defuse if not avert an unstable situation. What might be sources of instability? Poverty, religious fundamentalism, ethnic rivalries, border disputes, socioeconomic inequities, aggression, greed, a fight over scarce natural resources? In reality, there are many such sources that could lead to instability in the political or economic systems of countries or regions within them. To the possible sources of instability must be added "climate and climate-related factors". This includes climate variability on seasonal and interannual timeframes, as well as climate fluctuations across decades, climate change, and extreme climate and climate-related events. What was the role, for example, of a multiyear drought situation in North Korea in its rapprochement with South Korea?

Flashpoints fall under the umbrella of "early warnings". Governments everywhere like--no, love--early warning systems. Such systems give the government a warning about impending crises that might be avoided with advance notice. The longer the lead time, the more time governments have to develop a response strategy and tactics. Close scrutiny of almost any government will likely expose early warning (or fail-safe) systems. Government ministries seem to rely only on their own list of early warning indicators. In the Sudan, for example, one can find a dozen or so early warning systems related to food insecurity and famine.

El Niño and La Niña events are known to spawn climate and climate-related hazards in some locations around the globe. El Niño-related forest fires and the resulting smoke and haze in Southeast Asia added to existing political pressures on the Indonesian government and indirectly to cultural instability throughout the country. Might an El Niño-related drought at the end of 2001 serve to destabilise the present-day government of Zimbabwe, a government that has already shown signs of increasing political instability as its president seeks yet another term in office? To what extent might drought-induced migration from Afghanistan to Pakistan become a political flashpoint to the relationship between these countries or to the Indo-Pakistani conflict in Kashmir?

The question here is whether any of the numerous aspects of climate might be used to identify in advance potential instability to a government, economy, or culture. I myself am not yet sure, but it is worth considering.

Flashpoints Informal Planning Meeting
Columbia University, New York City, 4-5 April 2002
Convened by Michael Glantz and Kelly Sponberg.
Download the annotated agenda with discussion results (1,211 kb in PDF).

Comment on this topic.

International Panel on Natural Disasters

Some history is provided by Lewis, J. 1991. "International Hazards Panel". Disasters, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 296.


By Ian Burton (29 January 2001)
Radix--Standards for Preparedness and Response

No such panel exists. But it could and it should. The model is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This panel established jointly by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been extremely successful. A brief review of the reasons for its success provides some grounds for the proposal to establish an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Disasters, and some suggestions about how it might work. Account is also taken of the contrary views that will certainly be expressed.

When the climate change issue emerged onto the international agenda in the late 1980s, some insightful persons foresaw that the potentially catastrophic consequences of unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases would eventually require far reaching international agreements. It was also realised that reaching any sort of agreement would be impossible in the absence of a common understanding of the knowledge base; that is the science, the technology, the economics and other "facts" of the case. The Working Group on Greenhouse Gases (WGGG) was established through the cooperation of WMO, UNEP, and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). Before long, negotiations were begun to create an international agreement which would eventually be signed at the Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit" in 1992. As the process of negotiations got underway the diplomatic community, not least those in Foggy Bottom, realised just how fractious the climate change issue could prove to be, and they became wary of letting loose on the problem an independent group of scientists such as those associated with ICSU. Consequently the WGGG was replaced by the IPCC.

The IPCC is an intergovernmental body charged with reviewing and assessing the science of climate change in its broadest sense. This includes the atmospheric science and the interactions of the atmosphere with the oceans and the biosphere. It also includes the assessment of what is known about actual and potential impacts, and the social and economic dimensions of the possible adaptation and mitigation responses. Two major assessments have been produced by drawing on the largely pro bono services of more than 2,000 leading scientists nominated by their governments , and the Third Assessment is due to appear later this year (2001). Without the IPCC it is questionable if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change would ever have come into force, and it is most unlikely that the Kyoto Protocol to the Convention would have been agreed to in December 1997. The Protocol has not yet come into force. This will only happen after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention, including developed countries accounting for at least 55% of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. Throughout the negotiations, (and they are expected to continue indefinitely) the IPCC has been looked to as an independent and authoritative source of information. The IPCC assessments are scrupulously careful in avoiding prescriptive judgements. The reports are confined to assessments of what is known, and the degree of confidence that can be ascribed to specific conclusions. The reports also identify knowledge gaps, and thus provide a signpost to the research community. They are widely regarded and accepted as the authority on climate change.

There are questions about the true independence of the IPCC since it is an intergovernmental body, and all reports are either adopted (in the case of the Summaries for Policy Makers) or accepted (in the case of the texts of the underlying reports) at intergovernmental meetings. The debates are sometimes very contentious, but they centre on the science, and talk of policies, or actions is excluded. For some schools of post-modern science and philosophy this neutrality of science is a fiction. If so, then it is a very useful fiction and one in which the players seem mostly happy to believe, or to suspend their disbelief. In a very real and positive sense however the idea of neutral science works because the large majority of the scientists themselves intend to be neutral. This kind of scepticism has widespread value to scientists. To be sure, sometimes political positions are cloaked in scientific arguments. Delegates can and sometimes do try to obstruct proceedings in order to make a political point. Ultimately however in IPCC fora the appeal is to the science, and the collective scientific judgement carries the day. How well the process works can be seen by the fact that the judgements of individual and groups of scientists do not conform automatically to the positions that their national governments might wish.

Political opinions differ widely about climate change. Some countries (small island states) are outraged and virtually in a panic about sea level rise caused by climate change. At the other extreme, the major oil exporting countries tend to deny that the phenomenon has any reality, or claim that the uncertainties are so great that precipitous action now could be both economically damaging and quite unnecessary. If left to the policy process alone, in which the position of each country was backed by its own selected science, negotiations themselves would scarcely be possible. The existence of the IPCC and the open and effective way in which it has conducted its business, has served to narrow considerably the range of scientific disagreement, to reduce the uncertainty and to narrow the scope of the international negotiations. The claim that the work of the IPCC has been extremely successful, depends somewhat on expectations about the prospects of arriving at binding, effective, and enforceable international agreements. Given the complexities of the climate change issue, the level of uncertainty in the science, and the fact that vital national interests appear to be at stake , it is remarkable that the negotiations have proceeded as far as they have, and that nations continue to exhibit a strong determination to reach agreement sooner or later. All this owes much to the work of the IPCC in formulating its assessments and communicating them to the Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention.

The proposal by Ben Wisner to develop an international treaty that deals with the responsibilities of the nations individually and collectively in the face of the soaring costs of natural disasters is both visionary and practicable. It can be done. It goes without saying that it will not be easy. The most recent international effort to do something more constructive about natural disasters, the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, largely failed. The reasons for the failure have to do with the weaknesses of the United Nations system, and the lack of commitment by many national governments, especially those in developed countries. A fundamental misunderstanding of the problem at the outset of the Decade also contributed to its mediocre performance. It was believed that advancements in scientific understanding of the geophysical processes had reached, or were about to reach, a point at which much improved forecasts and warnings could be issued giving people and governments time to take precautionary action. This proved, as some predicted, to be an overly optimistic view. The timely and precise forecasts and warnings were generally not forthcoming, and even when they were the expectation that precautionary action would significantly reduce losses proved to be a pious hope. The best results have been obtained in the case of atmosphere-related hazards such as tropical cyclones and floods where it has proved possible to reduce the number of lives lost, but not the level of property losses or environmental damage. In the case of earthquakes there has been no equivalent success in the saving of life despite the fact that high earthquake zones are for the most part defined, and building technology is available to prevent collapse in all but the most extreme circumstances.

In the developed countries the rising toll of economic losses, insured and uninsured, probably does not significantly exceed the rise in national wealth as measured by GDP. In developing counties the probability is now being recognised that long term recurrent disaster losses may over time exceed the growth in GDP such that economies are setback (sometimes by a decade or more in a few minutes) and that de-development occurs. Such trends are not unknown in the global economy. Trade and currency fluctuations can be a major setback to development, but these risks are well recognised and are under constant surveillance by the IMF, the WTO, and national governments in developed and developing countries.

In the view of many informed players and observers, the lessons of the Decade should not be lost and some follow-up action is needed. So far the only action has been the creation of a small Secretariat in Geneva, and the establishment of an inter-agency Task Force, collectively named the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. So far there is not much sign of a strategy. It promises to be an ineffective palliative "strategy" designed more to placate than to achieve.

Ben Wisner is right. There is a need to create an effective international regime to work collectively for the prevention of natural disasters. This might be addressed through the negotiation of a Framework Convention for Natural Disaster Prevention. The experience with the Climate Convention shows that such negotiations would benefit greatly from careful assessments made by an intergovernmental body such as IPCC. Such an assessment would need to consider not only the geophysical science of disasters, but the root causes in social and economic systems which expose so many when the knowledge of how to prevent the worst effects is known and widely available.

Both to create momentum and to ensure that any negotiations towards a convention or treaty for disaster prevention are well founded upon existing knowledge a useful step would be the creation of an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Disasters. Potential parent organisations include the World Bank, UNDP, and WMO (for atmospheric hazards) and UNESCO (for oceans and geological and geophysical hazards).

It may be objected that international treaties and conventions are not an effective way of managing such global problems; that there are too many treaties already; or even that disasters are a matter for national governments and that the only international response should be in the realm of immediate emergency relief where a disaster response exceeds that capacity of a government. In response it is being increasingly recognised that humanity is now being drawn closer and closer together by the forces of globalisation. Peoples around the globe have a much more intimate knowledge of each other than ever before. Humanity shares a common future and a common destiny. Part of that is a common responsibility to use the knowledge we have to do what can be done.

A good first step would be the establishment of an Intergovernmental Panel on Natural Disasters charged with the task of making an assessment of the present state of knowledge.


By Rodger Doran (11 March 2001)
From Radix--Standards for Preparedness and Response

While I agree very much with the concept, I think the proposed name is too readily linked to a response-centred focus, which in my opinion is not the most pressing need in natural disaster management. In fact, the lethality of disasters has been reduced markedly in the last 30 years--probably due to the attention given to improving emergency preparedness and response capacities around the world. In the 1970s, disasters killed an average of 3.6 people per 100,000 population worldwide. By the year 2000 this had dropped to 1.4. In the same period, the numbers of people affected jumped from 1,918 per 100,000 population to 3,459. To me, this indicates that, while we still have much to do in improving response in disasters, we have made progress but we have made no progress in addressing issues of hazard and in breaking the hazard-disaster link. This alone justifies setting up an Expert body to look at why this is so, since hazard, prevention, and mitigation have been part of the disaster rhetoric for a long time, and presumably there must be some development programmes operated within a disaster management framework (rather than geological, meteorological, hydrological etc.) that have tried to address issues of hazard.

Hazards will always be with us, but they don't have to become disasters. If we look at data for 4 of the most measurable hazards for which we have good historical, scientific, and humanitarian data (volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, and floods), we can see that a higher proportion of these hazards are becoming disasters than ever before (e.g. prior to 1970, 0.15% of earthquakes above Richter 4 resulted in a disaster; by 2000 this had risen to 0.3% even though the average number of Richter 4+ earthquakes per year is slightly less now than 100 years ago). Hazards events related to climate change and environmental degradation are occurring in higher numbers per year and a higher proportion of them are causing disasters (slides--mud, land, and snow--seem to be rising particularly dramatically). There is also some evidence that the drip-drip-drip of repeated non-disaster hazard events (mainly flood) in vulnerable communities can be as bad any single-event disaster, and a focus on disaster will miss all the many non-disaster hazard events that cumulatively cause very high levels of economic loss, social disruption, secondary environmental degradation, and morbidity.

An Intergovernmental Panel which focuses on Hazards and addresses issues by promoting a risk management approach (combining vulnerability reduction, hazard mitigation/prevention, and emergency preparedness under one programmatic umbrella) would be a very important advance in consolidating scientific, technical, and humanitarian knowledge, and promoting research into the gaps in our knowledge. A hazard approach should accommodate all kinds of hazards--not just natural hazards. Technological hazards contributed to only 18% of events in the 1970s but 41% in the 1990s. I believe there is a growing realisation now that hazards are either natural or anthropogenic but disasters are all anthropogenic. We have to start seeing human behaviour as the cause of disasters and to resolve to change the way we behave and manage our environment. Additionally, hazards addressed through a risk management approach gives disaster management practitioners a comfortable seat at the development table (too often we are seen as peripheral), as risk management has a natural focus on local government, community, sustainability, and consultation for consensus building.

A Panel which is seen to focus on cause rather than effect (as the other panels' titles do) will also present a more positive image to policy makers and decision makers. The term Natural Disaster Reduction is a good example of an unfortunate choice of name that did nothing to help the credibility of organisations that adopted it as a tag.

Comment on this topic.

Mirror Disaster Diplomacy or Inverse Disaster Diplomacy
(a) Diplomatic enmity leading to disaster risk reduction (Lino Naranjo Diaz and
Ilan Kelman).
(b) Diplomatic decisions directly harming domestic disaster risk reduction (James Lewis).

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (11 May 2004):
              In October 2003, Lino Naranjo Diaz wrote Hurricane Early Warning in Cuba: An Uncommon Experience (27 kb in RTF which opens in Word) in which he states "Cubans have been forced to be more efficient in facing natural disasters in a scenario of political conflict with the US government. This is maybe an opposite view of the disaster diplomacy approach. Protective measures under a conflict are developed in such a way that the enemy would not be able to take advantages from the disaster."
             This idea of Mirror Disaster Diplomacy (or Disaster Undiplomacy?) might be more powerful than Disaster Diplomacy because it depends on a country's internal policies rather than bilateral negotiations. The political will for self-sufficiency is so strong that a country is willing to invest enough in vulnerability reduction and risk management to avert crises which would otherwise require international assistance. The question remains whether or not Cuba was entirely self-sufficient during Hurricane Michelle. Would less isolation from Washington or a less dictatorial government in Havana have averted the five deaths, resulted in less disruption during the hurricane, and eased the post-disaster recovery? Irrespective, the conflict with the USA and the impetus away from needing aid from Washington appears to have played an important role in Cuba's disaster mitigation policies and actions.
             North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and Libya when it was ostracised internationally are other examples of countries which prided themselves on self-sufficiency with little contact beyond their borders. Were impacts of disasters during this time period lessened due to this attitude? Did specific cases occur when international aid would normally have been a needed consequence of a disaster event, but the state's drive for self-sufficiency precluded the request? In those cases, did the avoidance of calling for international assistance exacerbate the disaster effects or was the event handled domestically with little trouble? If the latter is the case, could it serve as an example of what other states should aim for, without the totalitarian regime which made that success feasible?
             If a pattern does emerge where political isolation breeds vulnerability reduction, then we should consider how to apply these lessons in the absence of political isolation. Furthermore, places with other forms of isolation such as islands would have renewed hope for dealing with risk and disaster on their own. The concern is that for a government to find the political will and resources to achieve such success, the required factor might be an external political threat--i.e. Mirror Disaster Diplomacy--rather than the desire to help their people.
             This idea is further developed and published in Kelman (2007).

  • Commentary by James Lewis (9 May 2007):
             On 4 May 2007, tornadoes devastated Greensburg, Kansas. Is the situation as reported in today's New York Times (see below) an example of inverse disaster diplomacy? That is, the stress of active 'diplomacy' overseas (whether positive or not) being the reported cause of an absence of diplomacy between state and national governments? Disaster diplomacy, like its other forms, can sometimes have negative, not just nil, results.

  • Saulny, S. and J. Rutenberg. 2007. "Kansas Tornado Renews Debate on Guard at War". New York Times (online), published 9 May 2007 but dated 8 May 2007. Excerpts:
             For months, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and other governors have warned that their state National Guards are ill-prepared for the next local disaster, be it a tornado a flash flood or a terrorist’s threat, because of large deployments of their soldiers and equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
             Then, last Friday night, a deadly tornado all but cleared the small town of Greensburg off the Kansas map. With 80 square blocks of the small farming town destroyed, Ms. Sebelius said her fears had come true: The emergency response was too slow, she said, and there was only one reason.
             "As you travel around Greensburg, you’ll see that city and county trucks have been destroyed," Ms. Sebelius, a Democrat, said Monday. "The National Guard is one of our first responders. They don’t have the equipment they need to come in, and it just makes it that much slower."
             For nearly two days after the storm, there was an unmistakable emptiness in Greensburg, a lack of heavy machinery and an army of responders. By Sunday afternoon, more than a day and a half after the tornado, only about half of the Guard troops who would ultimately respond were in place.
             It was not until Sunday night that significant numbers of military vehicles started to arrive, many streaming in a long caravan from Wichita about 100 miles away.
             The governor and officials in other states again expressed concern that the problem could occur again as the stretched National Guard system struggled to respond to disasters at home while also fighting overseas.
             In Ohio, the National Guard is short of night vision goggles and M-4 rifles, said a Guard spokesman, Dr. Mark Wayda. "If we had a tornado hit a small town, we would be fine," Dr. Wayda said. "If we had a much larger event, that would become a problem."
             The California National Guard is similarly concerned about a catastrophic event. "Our issue is that we are shortchanged when it comes to equipment," said Col. Jon Siepmann, a spokesman for the Guard in California. "We have gone from a strategic reserve to a globally deployable force, and yet our equipment resources have been largely the same levels since before the war."
             Training is another issue. At a Washington news conference in February, Ms. Sebelius said, "The Guard cannot train on equipment they do not have." She added later: "And in a state like Kansas, where tornados, floods, blizzards and wildfires can seemingly happen all at once, we need our Guardsmen to be as prepared as possible."
             Two recent reports have raised questions about Guard preparedness. An independent military assessment council, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, released a report in March that stated: "In particular, the equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable and has reduced the capability of the United States to respond to current and additional major contingencies, foreign and domestic."
             Another report, released in January by the Government Accountability Office, concluded that the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have "significantly decreased" the amount of equipment available for National Guard units not deployed overseas, while the same units face an increasing number of threats at home.

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (1 June 2007):
             One of the frustrating aspects of the Greensburg situation is that the (Republican) White House initially responded by blaming the (Democrat) Governor of Kansas, suggesting that she did not request the needed assistance. The White House later admitted that the Governor had actually made several requests for help, implying that she had followed proper procedure. The White House's attempt to deflect criticism and to make the post-disaster situation politically partisan could reflect on the similar debate and accusations regarding post-disaster response which happened after Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana's (Democrat) Governor and the (Republican) White House.

Comment on this topic.

Natural Disaster Conflicts
Rakhi Bhavnani) (February 2006)

Rakhi Bhavnani's Master's dissertation is Natural Disaster Conflicts (244 kb in PDF for this summary of the entire dissertation). The abstract is:

This paper explores the effect of natural disasters on conflict. Disasters disrupt daily lives and social systems and call into question prevailing social and political arrangements. Directly and indirectly they create the conditions for instability and conflict by exacerbating social grievances and resource scarcities, and accelerating changes in social systems. Despite a plethora of studies in the disaster realm, however, negligible attention has been devoted to the study of conflict in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This study takes a preliminary step in that direction, analyzing the wide range of environmental, social, spatial, political, and psychological effects of natural disasters in both conflict-ridden and conflict-free areas of the world. Building on the findings and conclusions of disaster and conflict scholarship, together with natural disaster and event data covering the period of 1991-1999, the linkages between natural disasters and conflict are tested statistically within a multivariate model. This paper finds that natural disasters are important factors in explaining social conflict. The analysis both validates the traditional determinants of conflict and indicates the importance of incorporating system shocks such as natural disasters.

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Natural Disasters and Peacemaking
Worldwatch Institute

  • In 2005, the Worldwatch Institute, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, launched a two-year project addressing the intersections between disasters, environmental degradation, conflict, and peacemaking. Through interdisciplinary research, Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe examined these areas and communicated the results to aid organisations, policy makers, and governments. A significant focus is the practicalities of turning disasters into peacemaking opportunities. The website http://www.worldwatch.org/taxonomy/term/435 details this work.

  • Renner, M. and Z. Chafe. 2006. "Fostering Peace in Postdisaster Regions". Natural Hazards Observer, vol. XXX, no. 6 (July), pp. 1-3, full text (464 kb in PDF) posted here with the kind permission of the authors and the Natural Hazards Center.

  • Kelman, I. 2006. "Disaster Diplomacy: Hope Despite Evidence?". World Watch Institute Guest Essay, full text (as a webpage).

  • On 12 June 2007, the final report was released at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The press release from that day:
             Natural disasters strain the social and economic fabric of affected communities, often reinforcing inequalities and even triggering disputes. However, according to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, donor governments, disaster relief agencies, and others can capitalize on unusual peacemaking opportunities when disaster strikes in areas of acute conflict.
             The report, Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace, 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 percent. 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 Zoë Chafe.
             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:
             -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 socioeconomic 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 Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization based in Washington, DC. Through accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues, Worldwatch helps to inform people around the world about the complex interactions among people, nature, and economies. For more information, visit http://www.worldwatch.org

  • Invited commentary which Ilan Kelman (12 June 2007) made in New York on the occasion of the report's release: full text (19 kb in PDF).

Comment on this topic.

Risk Agenda 21
Ilan Kelman (26 May 2001)

As noted in Radix, disaster management should be shifting towards becoming a normal part of environmental management and should be encompassed in our struggle for appropriate interaction amongst, and sustainability of, society, technology, and the environment. Ben Wisner's "human right to protection from avoidable harm in extreme natural events" is almost a truism without the final four words.

Many human rights principles centre around protection from avoidable or deliberately imposed harm from society. In the context of sustainability and disasters, such harm could also come from environmental processes and technology; yet, of course, when environmental processes and technology cause harm, the root cause has usually been society's action. Disasters are, after all, about people. Thus, the fundamental right to protection from "disaster" is simply the fundamental right to protection from harm by society or, perhaps more appropriately, the protection from the imposition of unwanted risk, whether that risk be social, technological, or environmental.

Such analysis is neither innovative nor new nor difficult, but we are looking to enshrine such principles and various, excellent mechanisms have been discussed through Radix. Another alternative could be Agenda 21 modified to reflect both the new language and concepts Radix has developed and including statements on how to practically achieve the stated principles. The name could be Risk Agenda 21 with the "human right to sustainable development" or the "human right to protection from unwanted risk", with appropriate definitions, as a guiding principle.

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Seven Hypotheses: Disasters and Political Change
Mark Pelling and Kathleen Dill (January 2006)

Pelling, M. and K. Dill. 2006. "'Natural' Disasters as Catalysts of Political Action". Chatham House ISP/NSC Briefing Paper 06/01, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, U.K. full text (38 kb in PDF).

By analysing so-called "large natural disaster events" from 1899 to 2005, they propose seven hypotheses regarding disasters and political change:

  1. Disasters often hit politically peripheral regions hardest catalysing regional political tension.

  2. Disasters are a product of development policies and can open to scrutiny dominant political and institutional systems.

  3. Existing inequalities can be exacerbated by post-disaster governmental manipulation.

  4. The way in which the state and other sectors act in response and recovery is largely predicated on the kind of political relationships that existed between sectors before the crisis.

  5. Regimes are likely to interpret spontaneous collective actions by non-government sectors in the aftermath of a disaster as a threat and respond with repression.

  6. In the aftermath of disaster, political leaders may regain or even enhance their popular legitimacy.

  7. The repositioning of political actors in the aftermath of a disaster unfolds at multiple scales.

See also:

  • Pelling, M. and K. Dill. 2008. Disaster politics: from social control to human security, Paper 1, Environment, Politics and Development Working Paper Series Department of Geography, King's College London, U.K. full text (113 kb in PDF).

  • Pelling, M. and K. Dill. 2010. "Disaster politics: tipping points for change in the adaptation of sociopolitical regimes". Progress in Human Geography, vol. 34 no. 1, pp. 21-37.

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Tit-for-Tat Disaster Diplomacy
Ilan Kelman (28 September 2005)

Tit-for-Tat disaster diplomacy refers to the potential that one state providing aid to another state could lead to a similar reciprocal gesture in the future, despite conflict between the states. As well, the refusal of one state to provide aid to another state could lead to a similar reciprocal gesture in the future, perpetuating or creating conflict between the states. Case studies provide evidence for and against both forms of tit-for-tat disaster diplomacy, as detailed in Kelman (2007).

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Typologies of Disaster Diplomacy

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Universal Declaration of Disaster Rights
Ilan Kelman (13 March 2001)
inspired by Ian Burton, Ben Wisner, and Maureen Fordham

Should we decide to create a new framework to detail and advocate the proposals of Radix, one possibility following on from the proposal for an international panel would be a declaration of principles such as a Universal Declaration of Disaster Rights (although preferably avoiding the unfortunate acronym which it entails) or an International Disaster Prevention Constitution. Such a new document might be appropriate for inaugurating and defining the International Panel on Natural Disasters and could serve as a focal point for embodying the fundamental principles of human rights with respect to disasters, followed by an outline of the full meaning of this principle and the manner of its implementation.

This model is clearly based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, UDHR states in Article 3 "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". A document on "disaster rights" would incorporate this principle in the context of disaster prevention. Similarly, UDHR's preamble speaks of "freedom from fear". A natural consequence is freedom from fear of disaster. The greatest challenge relates to effectively communicating, formally adopting, and strictly enforcing any document of this nature. We would not wish to lose these principles on just another piece of paper which everyone says "Wonderful!", signs, and then forgets.

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