Social crisis, insecurity, state fragility and conflict are major development problems in many parts of the world. They create poverty, reverse development gains, and undermine social cohesion and human rights. Disasters and conflict often interact: conflict can create or increase vulnerability to other hazard events, whilst natural hazard events and other environmental stresses can exacerbate social crisis and conflict. Many conflicts and complex political emergencies are in areas which experience recurrent natural hazards. Economic and political pressures can be powerful drivers of social tension as well as over-exploitation of natural resources. Slow-onset threats, such as drought and desertification, accumulate pressure on natural resources such as water and forests, thereby degrading the environment (e.g. through deforestation and loss of pasture and topsoil from overuse), producing greater competition for these resources and thereby increasing the risk of conflict. Long-running droughts or seasonal floods reduce crop yields or wreck harvests, undermining agricultural livelihoods. This may lead ultimately to displacement and migration, which in turn can increase competition for resources with host communities where the displaced settle.
Many community-level conflicts are the result of competition for natural resources, or ineffective governance or management of resource use – particularly in the case of pasture, farmland and water, which are essential to livelihoods. Although environmental stress can sometimes lead to greater cooperation between social groups over natural resource management, disputes and conflict are a more common outcome. Access to common lands and other common resources may not be equitable, with minority and vulnerable groups losing out, whilst land disputes are often manipulated by political and other factions.
Conflict leads to environmental degradation, the breakdown of public services and disruption of infrastructure, household assets and livelihoods. Conflict, or the fear of conflict, undermines the rational use of resources, which may be over-exploited to meet immediate needs. People displaced by conflict often have no choice but to resettle in hazardous locations, such as unstable hillsides or flood plains. Social crises and conflict also create or accentuate social inequalities, where those who wield physical power exert greater influence and control: women and children are particularly marginalised in such situations. Although every situation or event is different, the interaction between disasters and conflict increases the risk of future crises by undermining individual and collective coping capacities. Case Study 15.1 (Conflict, displacement and food security) is an example of the impact that environmental pressures and conflict can have on poor people.
In Northern Mali, years of drought have had a significant impact on families that depend on farming and livestock for their livelihoods and food security. There were poor harvests in 2011, followed in 2012 by separatist campaigns involving a number of armed groups which displaced over 300,000 people. Food and seed stocks intended for consumption and sale were looted and the price of basic foodstuffs rose steeply. Livestock breeders were unable to move their animals in search of pasture and water, and were forced to sell them at very low prices in those local markets that were still accessible. In the towns, workers were no longer paid and banks ceased operating. Electricity and water supplies stopped functioning in some towns. Most community health care centres in rural areas also stopped working, having been looted or abandoned by their staff. Medicines were hard to obtain and vaccination programmes were suspended. The insecurity also hindered efforts to control locust swarms that were feeding on newly planted crops.
J.-N. Marti, ‘Addressing the Critical Humanitarian Situation in Northern Mali’, Humanitarian Exchange, 55, 2012, http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine.