By Zoe Tabary
LONDON, June 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to protect the poorest from threats such as hurricanes and floods will fall short unless they take into account the on-the-ground realities of countries beset by conflict or poor governance, humanitarian experts said.
Humanitarian and development workers trying to reduce disaster risk too often ignore conflict in their interventions, researchers and policymakers said at a London event on conflict and disasters this week.
"Disasters are neither natural nor conflict-neutral," said Katie Peters, senior research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a London-based thinktank.
In recent decades, major disasters have struck in a range of conflict-torn countries and regions, Peters said. Those include crippling drought in Somalia and Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis, which battered the military-ruled country formerly known as Burma in 2008.
The world is less peaceful than a decade ago, mostly due to conflict in the Middle East and Africa that is costing the global economy trillions of dollars, according to an international index published this week.
Although fragile states face huge social and economic problems, protecting people from natural disasters is possible and should be attempted despite the practical difficulties, U.N. officials recently said.
"Disasters hit the poorest and most vulnerable first, as they're on the frontline," said Thomas Helfen, head of the peace and security division at Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Those disasters then "act as risk multipliers in fragile contexts", he said.
COMPETITION AND CONFLICT
Severe drought, for instance, can spark conflict as competition for natural resources increases. But in other situations, conflict may displace people to areas more exposed to disasters, Helfen explained, pointing to Rohingya refugees who fled to disaster-prone Bangladesh.
"Conflict also undermines governments' ability to protect populations and help them recover from disasters," he told the audience at the ODI event Thursday.
Rina Meutia, a disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank, said she had repeatedly seen international disaster response efforts that were unequipped to deal with conflict situations.
Following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which killed over 168,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province, aid workers arriving to the area "were caught off guard" and did not know the province was under martial law, she said.
Peters said work to curb risks from droughts and floods in fragile states and regions was crucial, but had to be done with the context in mind.
Efforts such as Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED), a British government-funded initiative operating in countries such as Niger and Mali, are exploring what works in such situations, she said.
"If we're genuinely serious about supporting vulnerable people, we need to be doing disaster risk reduction in conflict settings," Peters said.
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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