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Disaster Diplomacy Projects and Ideas

in association with
Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

Projects and Ideas Index

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).

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 (224 kb 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."
           nbsp;  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.

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).

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.

  • This work critiqued in: Kelman (2016).

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).

Typologies of Disaster Diplomacy

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.

The material on the disaster diplomacy website is provided as only an information source. Neither definitive advice nor recommendations are implied. Each person or organisation accessing the website is responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed and are strongly advised to verify all information. No liability will be accepted for loss or damage incurred as a result of using the material on this website. The appearance of external links on this website does not constitute endorsement of the organisations, information, products, or services contained on that external website.