One of the reasons we cover disaster response and relief so frequently here is that in a world where natural systems are strained to the limit and billions of people are struggling to survive, what we're used to calling natural disasters are growing both more common and more dangerous. They are more destructive, certainly, but they also feed into (and their effects are made worse by) on-going humanitarian crises and violent conflicts.
This is why Worldwatch's new Natural Disasters and Peacemaking portal may come to serve as a great resource for those who care about building a better future:
Over the past few months, powerful storms and earthquakes ravaged various regions across the world. They destroyed dwellings and other infrastructure, resulted in job losses, and damaged fisheries and agriculture. The media spotlight cast around these natural disasters has exposed immense human suffering, environmental destruction, and gross socioeconomic inequities aspects that can exacerbate the direct effects of the disasters.
In some cases, the destructive forces of conflict and disaster overlap. New opportunities for peace and reconciliation may emerge as suffering cuts across the divides of conflict, prompting common relief needs. Reconstruction may only be able to proceed if a ceasefire or peace agreement is negotiated.
Humanitarian assistance from the United Nations, donor nations aid agencies, and NGOs usually prompt an influx of foreigners to disaster areas and accompanying media attention. This attention may enhance transparency and discourage continued violence or human rights abuses. A key challenge is overcoming the resistance of those who benefit, politically or materially, from the continuation of conflict.
The relief development continuum may present challenges in post-disaster situations. Some organizations and agencies focus on rapid relief efforts, while others tackle reconstruction and development with a focus on sustainability. They may disagree on tactics and priorities. For example, rebuilding can put pressure on natural resources such as forests. Without proper attention to environmental impacts, it may leave an area more vulnerable to future disasters. Environmental restoration, however, can play a critical role in reducing vulnerability while fostering social and economic structures that are less conducive to future conflict.
The idea, of course, that poverty, the environment and security are linked is not a new one. Indeed, it's a topic we've been writing about from the start here (for our most recent take on the issue, see Alan's excellent piece, No Security Without Sustainability). Neither is the idea that disaster response needs to move beyond relief to become an opportunity to rebuild something better. Nor, for that matter, that healthy natural systems can buffer the worst effects of natural disasters while providing critical "ecosystem services". It all works together, or it doesn't work at all.
What makes the Worldwatch site particularly hopeful, though, is the sense that these holistic approaches are really catching on, and that a community of practice is emerging which is adept at thinking in multiple arenas and across multiple disciplines while responding to crises. And that, friends, is good news indeed.
I hope that this will start some discussion about the recent Pakistan earthquake and the evidently slow and meager world reaction to it, compared to the tsunami and New Orleans.