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Seismic risk exposes disaster risk management’s neglect of conflict

Written by Katie Peters

Hero image description: Richard Walker/Flickr Image credit:Richard Walker/Flickr Image license:CC BY-NC 2.0

This piece is not about the horrific complications of responding to the earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria on 6 February – this is dealt with elsewhere by those on the ground.

This article is about how we, as an international community of development and humanitarian actors, are failing to take seriously the need to enhance disaster risk management in contexts of conflict – be they growing political tensions as in Turkey or active armed conflict as in Syria. The neglect is widespread.

Speaking on The News Agents podcast on 9 February, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, said: ”…[Syria] has become a forgotten conflict until three days ago - and now we realise that forgotten conflicts are not resolved conflicts – and so the earthquake is a crisis piled onto an existing crisis”.

Disaster impacts, like conflicts, get forgotten too soon.

The international development and humanitarian communities have always been dealing with concurrent, complex and compounding risks and impacts. More recently, this discourse has come to the fore. Examples include the focus on systemic risk within the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Global Assessment Report but also through operational responses to Covid-19. Such responses brought home the reality that many contexts are contending with the concurrent challenges of Covid-19 alongside conflicts, natural hazard-related disasters being amplified by climate variability and change, and multiple other societal issues.

In uniquely complex ways, Syria and Turkey revel the deeply political nature of hazard-related disasters. In speaking on the topic of disasters in conflict settings, my opening gambit is often that ‘disasters are neither natural nor conflict-neutral’ – meaning, the term ‘natural’ is a misnomer (readers are encouraged to take heed of #NoNaturalDisasters), and that the component parts of a disaster – hazard, vulnerability, exposure, capacities to cope – are also inherently political, shaped by the socio-economic-political context in which risk manifests.

The current earthquakes reveal such complexities. In Turkey, questions are being asked about the use of Turkey’s ‘earthquake tax’, instigated following the 1999 quakes, and intended to enforce building codes and retrofit buildings where required. Such questions are being specifically directed to Erdoğan; in a quick political manoeuvre, arrest warrants for building contractors have already been issued. This is a clear illustration of how the vulnerabilities that contribute to disasters are the product of inherently political processes related to the distribution of power and wealth, and to questions of accountability.

Meanwhile, in Syria, coordinating response in a context where diplomatic ties are severed has required international support to be channelled via direct liaison with first responders: The White Helmets. Engaging at the local level is often the only politically viable option in contexts where non-state armed groups operate.

In terms of immediate response, some efforts to adapt existing disaster response and recovery practices to conflict settings have emerged over the years. Of note is the formal integration of conflict sensitivity principles into Post-Disaster Needs Assessments by the UN Development Programme. Such approaches are relevant for violent and latent conflict – and as a result, are as applicable for Turkey as for Syria.

Yet taking a step back, the international disaster risk reduction community has very little to say on enacting disaster risk management in conflict settings. Here I’m not talking about humanitarian response, but about ex-ante preventative, mitigation and preparedness measures.

Ex-ante measures for seismic risk include enforcement of building codes and regulations. Such measures – even where they exist on paper, as in Turkey - are rarely enforced to the degree required. In many countries across the globe such mitigation measures are notoriously absent, for reasons that range from complacency over one’s risk through to outright avoidance to comply with building regulations, as financial incentives for reduced building costs outweigh safety concerns (something Naomi Klein wrote persuasively about in her book The Shock Doctrine). Government accountability for enforcement is often a crucial missing element here. And there’s much in between: the political challenge of enforcing building regulations in informal urban settlements is a case in point, particularly in contexts of conflict and/or disaster-displaced persons – as is the reality for many Syrian refugees across the Arab states region.

Consideration of conflict and conflict sensitivity principles are inherent within development and humanitarian approaches, but frequently lack explicit integration or procedures for adoption, meaning that dissecting the nuances of conflict situations can be missed or insufficient. Thus we need to go much further – to make conflict sensitivity a mandated approach to all disaster risk management practices, and to look at more innovative ways to enhance individuals’ ability to prepare for and respond to natural hazard-related disasters in violent and armed conflict settings. For example, how can (or should) the international community work with non-state armed groups in pursuit of disaster risk management actions prior to a disaster? What changes to routine practices are required to ensure latent conflict is not ignited in the implementation of disaster risk management projects?

There is another dimension to consider: that of disaster diplomacy.

The potential for disaster situations to instigate collaboration between communities or countries previously staunchly opposed has drawn the attention of disaster scholars for some time. Turkey’s relationship with Greece following earthquakes in 1999 is used as such an example. And disaster scholars such as Ilan Kelman have offered insights on such approaches in the context of the current earthquake. Since Kelman’s article was published, additional aid crossings on the Turkey-Syria border have been created. Whether this constitutes any form of diplomatic act, it is far too early to tell.

The call to nuance our work on disaster risk management in conflict settings is one I’ve made many times, for many years. The bitter and oft-repeated irony is that it’s the post-disaster space where such calls to action are heard. Comprehensive action on disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness adapted to conflict settings remains an aspiration.

The current crisis could be seen as an opportunity to reiterate this call in other contexts. Lebanon is a case in point, where there is a coexistence of seismic risk, a politically fractured society, geopolitical tensions, informal urban settlements, and an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

The Turkey-Syria quakes starkly reveal the complexities of managing seismic risk which go far beyond the immediate humanitarian response. Revealed are the complex intersections of domestic politics (related to the ‘earthquake tax’), international politics (Russia’s role in the humanitarian response and Syria more broadly, not least in the context of the current situation in Ukraine), and the recurring confrontation to the disaster risk management community that we are far from ready to deal with the manifest complexity of disasters in conflict contexts.