Busby compares the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which pounded Burma in May 2008, to that of an armed attack, describing both as causing “widespread suffering, destruction of infrastructure, mobilization of the military, and the movement of refugees.” In fact, between 1991 and 2005, natural disasters led to as many deaths as armed conflict, as Busby notes. The subsequent political battles around outside efforts to deliver aid “gave people around the world a visual image of the potential future,” says Busby, and offered a glimpse of “the security risks when affected countries lack the capacity or will to respond.”
The economic consequences of natural disasters can also be crippling. In absolute terms, the developed world suffers larger financial losses, but as a share of GDP, the damage to developing countries is far greater. Additionally, though the death toll of natural disasters continues to fall, the total number of affected people is on the rise, which means that many more people are relying on government services to regain their footing in the wake of natural disasters.
These consequences have long-term security implications for a world in which natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. “Post-disaster environments are going to be dangerous moments,” Busby predicts, “when mishandled or inadequate disaster response can give way to the kinds of lingering grievances that can motivate people to take up arms.” To prevent this, he advocates an international focus on adaptation and risk-reduction strategies, and cautions against narrowly focusing on the causal relationship linking climate change to violent conflict. By doing so, policymakers and practitioners overlook what Busby says is the more likely outcome, in which large-scale disasters sap government resources by creating humanitarian emergencies that require military mobilization in response. In “Gathering Storm – the humanitarian impact of climate change,” the UN’s Integrated Regional News Networks (IRIN) explores how climate change has altered the face of global humanitarian crises.
Offering a sharp critique of the reactive strategy of many governments, Busby suggests that a modest investment in prevention would be more efficient and more effective. A joint assessment by the World Bank and the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, found that a $40 billion investment in natural-disaster prevention could have prevented $280 billion in damages worldwide during the 1990s. The reactive approach also threatens to politicize the carefully guarded neutrality of aid workers and organizations; engender international friction where inadequate government response leads to international intervention; and sap government resources through costly responses to humanitarian crises.
Busby envisions a system where “the poor bear less of the brunt of half-hearted and partial reactive measures” in response to climate change. Noting Paul Collier’s finding in The Bottom Billion that past conflict is an accurate predictor of future poverty, Busby argues that reducing the potential for violence in post-disaster situations will improve development prospects for countries worldwide. An enlightened approach, emphasizing prevention over reaction, will not only insulate vulnerable regions from the immediate dangers of natural disasters, but will also protect them from more indirect, long-term threats to their prosperity and security.
Photo: Tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers were mobilized in response to the May 12th earthquake. As climate change makes natural disasters more frequent and more severe, this will likely become an increasingly common sight. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alex and Jerry.