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close this bookAn Overview of Disaster Management (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 136 p.)
close this folderChapter 5. Compound and complex disasters 1
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSocio/political forces
View the documentDisplaced persons
View the documentThe role of the UN in complex emergencies
View the documentSafety of relief teams in conflict zones

Socio/political forces

Increasingly throughout many parts of the world one type of hazard can trigger a disaster which in turn triggers another hazard and subsequent disaster. For example, a drought may lead to a famine which in turn leads to a civil conflict that results in the mass displacement of people. A flood may force people to seek refuge across an international border where conflicts ensue between refugees and local communities.

Such compound hazards and disasters need not happen sequentially; they can also occur simultaneously. Thus, people caught between contending forces in a civil war find that in the midst of a major drought they have no means either to grow food or to receive outside assistance.

In a growing number of countries, complex disasters are also becoming more evident. Essentially a complex disaster is a form of human-made emergency in which the cause of the emergency as well as the assistance to the afflicted are bound by intense levels of political considerations. The single most prevalent political condition of a complex emergency is civil conflict, resulting in a collapse of political authority in all or part of a country. In such cases, at least one of three situations arise:

1. The government’s ability to assist the disaster-afflicted becomes severely constrained.

2. The government becomes extremely suspicious of or uninterested in afflicted people who have fled from non-government to government held areas.

3. The government or opposition groups actually create or compound a disaster through actions that generate refugees and the mass displacement of people.

In fact, many affected people live in areas outside of government control. They are often the persons who are most in need and they are often the most difficult to reach with aid.

The disaster becomes “complex” because either the collapse or diffusion of political control makes assistance highly problematic. Solutions ultimately depend upon agreements with all parties involved in the conflict to permit assistance to be provided to recognize civilian noncombatants. These solutions may be agreements that are seen essentially as compromising fundamental aspects of sovereignty for what have been labelled as “new mechanisms of humanitarian assistance” (for example, corridors of tranquility).

An acute example of a situation illustrating the characteristics of both compound and complex emergencies is the Horn of Africa. For the past several years the situation in the Horn of Africa has been characterized by internal conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. These conflicts have been exacerbated by recurrent droughts and have resulted in famines on a massive scale and the flight of large numbers of people across national borders. After years of drought in some parts of the region, by 1991 food shortages were widespread. It became apparent that the crisis in the region was less the result of inadequate rainfall than that of a human-made emergency.

During the last half of 1991, the situation in many parts of the Horn remained highly volatile and fragile, largely due to conflict and a break down of law and order. This resulted in further population displacement and in intense misery for millions of people.