Although numerous research projects have found that environmental change can contribute to conflict “through its impact on social variables such as migration, agricultural and economic decline, and through the weakening of institutions, in particular the state,” very few analysts have systematically addressed the relationship between natural disasters and violent civil conflict, write Philip Nel and Marjolein Rightarts in “Natural Disasters and the Risk of Violent Conflict,” published in the March 2008 issue of International Studies Quarterly
(subscription required). Criticizing political scientists’ tendency to diminish the importance of geography and environmental factors in assessing violence, they argue that it has become critically important to “correct this oversight.”
Recent events indicate that this attention is overdue. On May 2, Cyclone Nargis began its devastating journey through Myanmar. The latest UN estimates put the death toll at somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000. On May 12, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province (incidentally, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes top Nel and Rightarts’ list of the disasters most likely to lead to violence). Official death toll estimates currently stand at 40,000, but are likely to continue to increase. While the Chinese government has been praised both at home and abroad for the speed and scale of its response, Burma’s ruling military junta has been roundly condemned for delaying the arrival of international humanitarian assistance. It remains to be seen whether the junta’s controversial response will lead to popular rebellion among the Burmese people.
Low- and middle-income countries with high levels of inequality are most susceptible to the violence caused by natural disasters, write Nels and Rightarts. Natural disasters create openings for violent civil conflict by reducing state capacity while simultaneously increasing demands upon the state. The scramble for limited resources in the wake of a natural disaster can easily devolve into widespread violence.
“Given the dire predictions that natural disasters are set to become more frequent in the near future” due to climate change, Nel and Rightarts conclude, “conflict reduction and management strategies in the twenty-first century simply have to be more attuned to the effects of natural disasters than they have been up to now.”