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Again the phantom city burns

February 22, 2010

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY and Elisabeth King, a political scientist researching conflict, peacebuilding and development in Sub-Saharan Africa and postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

How much do the tent cities forming around Port-au-Prince remind us of the camps set up to shelter those who have fled the violence of civil war?  How much do the ruins in the streets of that city remind us of the destruction of violence?  The scope of the casualties, perhaps more than 200,000 (we’ll never know the true figure), certainly echoes numbers we hear from war zones. To the Haitian President René Préval the similarities are stark.  A few days after the earthquake he said “The damage I have seen here can be compared to the damage you would see if the country was bombed for 15 days. It is like in a war.”   Such similarities between disasters and violent conflict are often noted superficially, especially by the news media in the immediate aftermath, and this has certainly been the case in reports about Haiti’s earthquake.

Perhaps we might expect remarks of this sort in reference to places like Haiti that have a history of conflict but such analogies are common, even in places that do not have a history of violent conflict.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters commented on how that scene appeared like a war zone.  When the National Guard arrived in New Orleans, the disaster relief operation transformed into the military operation of restoring and maintaining order and images of soldiers in armored vehicles with weapons at the “ready” position were indistinguishable from those we commonly associate with peacekeeping in conflict situations.

The analogy ought not to be taken too far and certainly, there are very important differences between disasters and violent conflicts.  Natural disasters are generally portrayed as the result of a capricious act of nature, perhaps made worse by human agency, while conflicts are usually thought of as acts of one group of people against another.  Nature is rarely invoked as a cause of conflict despite a growing recognition that environmentally driven scarcity could enhance social stresses and raise tensions.  With the exception perhaps of extended periods of drought, most natural disasters are shorter duration events than conflicts and none match the extended civil conflicts in Sudan or Colombia.   There are no obvious analogies to war crimes or war crime trials and no equivalents to truth and reconciliation efforts though there is little doubt that there is opportunistic criminal behavior during disasters and legal actions sometimes follow.  Nor is there an equivalent to a negotiated ceasefire or victory by one party over another.

Yet there is more at work here than the somewhat gratuitous media comparisons between disasters and conflicts might suggest.  The humanitarian response community is increasingly recognizing the interconnections between disasters and conflicts because they confront similar post-emergency situations on the ground, dealing with displaced populations and the triage of crisis management.  These are practical matters borne out of necessity.

Less well recognized, though perhaps more consequential, are the ways in which causes and consequences of conflicts and disasters have a common substrate. Scholars of violent conflict often think about causes as proximate and underlying.  Proximate causes are those that directly affect the odds of war, or in other words, can trigger war.  Underlying, or root, causes are the background conditions required for the activation of proximate causes, but are on their own insufficient to cause violent conflict.  While this is not the language commonly used in describing disasters, disaster researchers from the natural sciences have focused on identifying proximate causes and making predictions of natural hazard events.  The essential question with earthquakes, for example, is whether we can learn enough about source mechanisms to be able to predict where, when and how large a future earthquake might be.  Although we think of disasters as “caused” by natural extremes like earthquakes and hurricanes, we also know that events having equal geophysical magnitude lead to very different outcomes.  The earthquake that stuck Haiti last month was not at the top of the Richter scale but the deaths it caused were well off scale – 200,000 deaths is vastly more than it is reasonable to expect for a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.  In California, earthquakes of similar magnitude result in only a handful of deaths.  An act of nature is transformed through human agency into a social tragedy of greatly different magnitude –– a few deaths, many deaths, economic hardship, economic stimulus – so the underlying “cause” of the outcome must lie somewhere other than in the natural extreme itself.

Disasters, like conflicts, should be viewed as processes; there is a long prelude in which in which the underlying causes evolve and some people acquire greater vulnerability than others, the event itself (brief in the case of disasters, extended in the case of conflict) that exposes the fact that some are at greater risk, and the following coda in which some may recover easily and even have improved lives, while others suffer great set-backs from which they never fully recover.   In a disaster the natural extreme is the dominant actor only in a brief period of the process.  In the prelude the acquisition of disaster vulnerability mimics the development of permissive conditions that lead to conflict.  And the post-disaster period also mimics the post-conflict period in that careful and equitable reconstruction of structures and livelihoods must aim to ensure that tragedy will be avoided in the future or at least minimized.

When disasters strike in poor countries like Haiti —the poorest country in the world with significant earthquake risk –the international community typically responds with aid that attempts to repair the physical damage and restore the country to its pre-disaster state.  What is new in Haiti is that restoration per se is not a reasonable goal and because of this the language of reconstruction planning recalls that of post-conflict rebuilding.  We heard after Katrina that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needed a new leader and a major overhaul, but in Haiti we hear that inclusive and effective institutions of government need to be constructed (not reconstructed) and that an economy that helps address economic growth, but also grinding poverty and deep-seated inequalities needs to be created.  This was true before the earthquake, but the need is even more desperate today.

Another thing that is new is that stress transfer calculations imply that Port-au-Prince following the earthquake may actually be at greater earthquake risk than before.  This is quite different from what occurs after most massive disasters where a period of relative quiescence is expected.  But in this situation the chances of a repeat of the January 12th earthquake in the relatively near future are thought to be significant and that of a lesser magnitude, though potentially very damaging earthquake, alarmingly high.  This recalls a fragile peace where the threat of renewed violence lies close at hand.

The situation in Haiti is fundamentally different from any post-disaster situation in modern time.  There is really no precedent.  What we know about post-disaster reconstruction will not lead Haiti to a future in which lives are rebuilt and the risks of a new disaster are greatly diminished.  A plan that takes the lessons of post-conflict reconstruction as guiding principles will be needed.  Post-conflict peacebuilders have experience with the delicate transition from humanitarian relief to the long-term sustainable development that will be needed in Haiti, but that is not usually a part of post-disaster reconstruction.  Post-conflict peacebuilders also have experience with the challenges of long-term international involvement such as sustaining funding alongside competing interests and the illusion of allegedly clear signs of progress such as “free and fair elections”.  Peacebuilders can also offer lessons about balancing multilateral international support with “local ownership” – and the difficulty of what that possibly means in practice.  (Un)fortunately history has many post-conflict examples from which responders in Haiti might learn

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