Addressing disasters entails dealing with the environment, such as understanding different types of earthquake faults and floodplains.
Volunteers of the Disaster Relief Foundation paint drawings on the walls of a house refurbished after a major flooding in Sunchang, North Jeolla Province. / Korea Times file
By Ilan Kelman and JC Gaillard
Earlier this year, hope emerged for North Korea. The United States, China, North Korea and others reached an agreement that Pyongyang would receive food aid in exchange for progress on nuclear and missile talks.
This is a classic case of disaster diplomacy, where a disaster – here, leading to humanitarian aid – is used to move forward with diplomacy. It also represents a classic case of disaster diplomacy by following the same pattern as every single other disaster diplomacy case study that has been examined in detail: it failed.
Exactly one month after the landmark deal was hailed in February, the U.S. government stopped aid to North Korea due to a missile test. Even China was irate at the North’s actions.
This pattern is not new. Since 1995, North Korea has been suffering from a series of floods, droughts, and famines. Some estimates suggest that over a million people have died.
The disasters occur mainly due to North Korea’s own agricultural mismanagement. That illustrates how weather variability leading to floods and droughts can become disasters when society treats the environment poorly. It was not extreme weather causing the disasters, but North Korea’s own actions in terms of inappropriate environmental management and food production. One consequence has been continual international food aid.
North Korea has also long been trying to avoid international scrutiny regarding its nuclear and military ambitions. Linking humanitarian aid to increased international access to the country yields disaster diplomacy.
Each time, the same cycle has recurred. North Korea reaches a deal for food aid, even receiving some, in exchange for military and access concessions. As soon as possible after, it reneges on the deal and aid stops.
That was the same after April 22, 2004 when a massive train explosion rocked North Korea. Aid was delivered, but soon afterwards, the country closed off again. North Korea represents a typical disaster diplomacy failure, supported by in-depth analyses of dozens of other instances.
What is disaster diplomacy?
Disaster diplomacy research investigates how and why disaster-related activities do and do not influence conflict and cooperation. The key phrase is “disaster-related activities.”
Post-disaster actions are covered, such as response, recovery, and reconstruction. Pre-disaster efforts are also covered, including prevention and mitigation.
Deforestation, constructing improper sea walls that reduce coastal sedimentation, and poor farming practices that augment rainfall runoff can all contribute to augmented environmental hazards. Cooperation across borders is often essential to tackle these challenges.
So disaster diplomacy is not just about what happens when a volcano erupts in a war zone or when humanitarian aid is delivered by political enemies. It also examines before a disaster, how setting up a warning system might bring together antagonistic parties or how vaccinations might lead to permanent ceasefires. Yet that does not happen.
Two main types of disaster diplomacy scenarios have been examined. First, a specific country or region that experiences disaster, such as North Korea. Second, a specific disaster event or type of disaster. Earthquakes in Iran have had potential for improving U.S.-Iran relations, but never did.
Dealing with disasters entails dealing with the environment, such as understanding and building for different types of earthquake faults and floodplains. We all live in the environment and need to live with its characteristics, trends, and extremes-such as intense ground shaking or rainfall.
It seems reasonable to expect that enemies could find some common ground and move towards reconciliation as part of living within the same environment. That rarely happens.
All evidence so far suggests that, while disaster-related activities do not create fresh diplomatic opportunities, they sometimes catalyse peace. But only in the short term, not in the long term.
In the short term-on the order of weeks and months-disaster-related activities can, but do not always, impact diplomacy. They influence it, they spur it on, and they affect it, as long as a pre-existing basis existed for that impact. The pre-existing basis might be cultural connections, trade links, or secret negotiations.
On Dec. 26, 2004, tsunamis raced across the Indian Ocean, with the two hardest hit areas being Sri Lanka and the Indonesian province of Aceh. Both locations lost tens of thousands of people. Each had a long-running conflict which had become particularly violent over the previous 30 years.
In Aceh, a peace deal was reached months after the tsunami. So far, it has held. The peace deal was based on secret negotiations that started just two days before the tsunami. It did not create the peace, but it did help the ongoing peace process to succeed. The parties involved wanted peace and used the tsunami as one excuse to reach peace.
In Sri Lanka, the humanitarian emergency and international aid exacerbated the conflict. Within a few years, Sri Lanka’s military had won. The parties involved had reasons for continuing the conflict and used the tsunami as one excuse to avoid peace.
That shows how the potential effect of disaster-related activities on achieving diplomacy does not always appear. When it does happen, it works only in the short-term.
Over the long-term-in terms of years-non-disaster factors take over. Examples are a leadership change, distrust, belief that an historical conflict or grievance should take precedence over present-day humanitarian needs, or priorities for action other than conflict resolution and diplomatic dividends.
Why does disaster diplomacy fail?
Many reasons explain why disaster-related activities sometimes have less diplomatic influence than might be expected or hoped for. Reconciliation is not necessarily an important objective, irrespective of saving lives in a disaster. The United States and Iran illustrate this.
Inertial prejudice, misgivings, and mistrust can overcome disaster diplomacy efforts. The United States initially did not respond to Iran’s aid offers following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Additionally, lack of political forethought and media hype can derail good intentions. That was the case when the American government tried to send a high-profile emissary with aid supplies to Bam, Iran following the 2003 earthquake disaster. Iran firmly stated that humanitarian relief was acceptable, but not political intentions.
Denying that international assistance is needed allows countries to avoid accepting external help from enemies. Then, no basis exists for even attempting disaster diplomacy.
With lingering memories of the failed Bam-related earthquake diplomacy, Iran declined an American offer of aid following the February 2005 earthquake disaster in the southern part of the country. Iran stated that they could handle the disaster domestically. Yet aid was accepted from several other countries and international organizations.
Too often, politics other than responding to a disaster can be higher priority, even when political goodwill is present. Should more efforts be made to force disasters to support peace and diplomacy? Opposing answers emerge.
Some say “absolutely not.” Extensive effort occurs to divorce disasters and politics. New mechanisms for linking them are not wanted. Instead, encouraging further separation would be preferable.
Others state “of course, yes.” Disasters are inherently political events, so trying to separate disasters and politics is naive. The more positive outcomes from disasters which could be fostered, the better. Such outcomes should be actively pursued.
Disaster diplomacy in the Philippines
The Philippines indicates the inextricable links between disasters and politics. In November and December 2004, four typhoons struck Quezon province killing over 1,000 people through floods and mudslides in areas with a long-standing guerrilla conflict led by the New People’s Army (NPA).
Illegal logging was quickly identified as one of the causes of the devastating slope failures and floods. Such environmental degradation has long been associated with exacerbating the impacts of many forms of disaster. The Filipino government promptly associated the illegal logging with the NPA.
The government could have grasped the opportunity to tackle the long-standing conflict and illegal logging simultaneously. That would be part of long-term disaster reduction, environmental management, peace and development. Instead, the government sought to shift blame and to inflame the NPA.
Fanning the NPA conflict occurred while the parallel conflict with religious. Separatists in the south had cooled down. Was the government determined to seek a conflict somewhere? Perhaps to bury the opposition’s claims of new evidence for governmental corruption and incompetence?
As part of that, the opposition blamed the government for not tracking down the loggers and for contributing to the environmental damage in the disaster-affected areas. The opposition even suggested the death penalty for the loggers.
All sides had media allies promoting their arguments vociferously. Instead of disaster diplomacy, the events became politically constructed by everyone according to their own pre-conceived narrative that conveniently blamed someone else.
Since then, several typhoons and volcanic eruptions have struck conflict-prone areas of the Philippines. All saw similar characteristics regarding the political construction of the disaster and the lack of disaster diplomacy.
Sometimes, firefights occurred between guerrillas and government soldiers during relief operations. Sometimes, various parties declared unilateral ceasefires during the disaster and then took up arms again after the major crisis had dissipated.
There was never scope for longer-term peace. Disaster have sometimes produced short-term, but never long-term, diplomatic dividends.
Any hope for disaster diplomacy?
Rather than giving hope for peace, disaster diplomacy can distract from it. It can raise expectations which cannot be met immediately. That creates disillusionment, impatience, and ammunition for contrarians.
Furthermore, disaster diplomacy seeks a quick fix to long-standing, fundamental causes of enmity and disaster vulnerability. Short-term peace-making solutions tend to fail in the long-term, as do short-term measures to reduce disaster vulnerability.
Even stopping illegal logging, which would reduce flood damage in places such as Pakistan as well as the Philippines, is not enough. Measures are needed to examine why people devastate the environment around them, increasing their own disaster vulnerability. Ultimately, it is usually because they have inadequate livelihood choices and no prospects for improvement.
In fact, all peace and disaster reduction activities require long-term commitments, not a one-off approach expected to solve all disaster and diplomacy problems right away. These peace and disaster reduction activities need to be linked to how people use the environmental resources around them to achieve their livelihoods.
Should we lose all hope for disaster diplomacy? A successful example of new, lasting diplomacy based on only disaster-related activities may yet emerge. In particular, parties involved could make the active choice to seek long-term solutions using nothing but short-term disaster diplomacy.
So far, that has not been unambiguously witnessed. As with North Korea, active decisions are usually made to scuttle any hope of disaster diplomacy. Without more commitment from all those involved in disaster and diplomacy efforts, disaster diplomacy is doomed to failure.
Disaster recovery is a concept developed in the mid to late 1970s as computer center managers began to recognize the dependence of their organizations on their computer systems. At that time most systems were batch-oriented mainframes which in many cases could be down for a number of days before significant damage would be done to the organization.
As awareness of disaster recovery grew, an industry developed to provide backup computer centers, with Sun Information Systems (which later became Sungard Availability Systems) becoming the first major U.S. commercial hot site vendor, established in 1978 in Philadelphia.
During the 1980s and 1990s, IT disaster recovery awareness and the disaster recovery industry grew rapidly, driven by the advent of open systems and real-time processing (which increased the dependence of organizations on their IT systems). Another driving force in the growth of the industry was increasing government regulations mandating business continuity and disaster recovery plans for organizations in various sectors of the economy.
Ilan Kelman (right) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Oslo <(CICERO). His main research and application interests are disaster diplomacy and sustainability in island communities. See www.ilankelman.org
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JC Gaillard is Senior Lecturer at the School of Environment of The University of Auckland, New Zealand. His research, policy and practical interests span a wide range of topics related to disaster risk reduction (www.sges.auckland.ac.nz/ about_us/our_people/gaillard_jc/index.shtm).