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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


1 The material from this chapter is drawn from the DMTP special topic module Displaced Persons in Civil Conflict by Frederick Cuny; General Assembly Resolution 46/182: The Executive Summary of the 1992 Consolidated Appeal for the Horn of Africa: and the Themes of Emergencies stated in the First SEPHA Situation Report.

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.

Displaced persons

One of the most serious consequences of compound and complex emergencies is the creation of populations of displaced persons. The example of the Horn of Africa refers to many of the displaced populations but there are millions more in other parts of the world.

The term “displaced person” applies in several contexts. These include people who are:

forced to leave their homes as a result of drought, famine, or other disaster, usually in search of food

non-combatant individuals and families forced to leave their homes because of the direct or indirect consequences of conflict but who remain inside their country

forcibly resettled by their government if the resettlement is ethnically, tribally or racially motivated

expelled from a country, especially as an ethnic or national group, forced out for economic or political reasons.

Reasons for concern

The international humanitarian relief system is just now beginning to meet the challenge of working with the displaced. There are three principle reasons for concern by relief agencies. One is that displaced persons are often ineligible to receive relief and assistance available to refugees (individuals who have crossed an international border seeking protection). A second reason is that the displaced are often insecure about relying on their own government for protection. A third reason is the obstacle of national sovereignty that limits outside agencies to assist this population.

Consequences and effects

The variety of possible situations generating displaced persons makes generalizations difficult, but the following may be experienced in varying degrees.

loss of means of livelihood

communities becoming separated from any services previously provided

loss of normal sources of food

lack of shelter and household necessities

lack of fuel for cooking

lack of potable water

communicable diseases and over-crowding

additional burdens particularly for women heads of households

possibly large numbers of unaccompanied children

loss of land tenure

possible communication and logistics problems

insecurity due to tensions and military activities

Not to be forgotten is the population that may remain at home and, even though they are not “trapped in combat areas,” they nonetheless are in places that are hard to reach because of political, logistical and/or security obstacles. They may suffer many of the above problems and be isolated from international humanitarian relief.

The role of the UN in complex emergencies

In light of the issues created by complex emergencies and the special needs of displaced populations, the United Nations has determined to strengthen and make more effective the collective efforts of the international community, in particular the UN system, in providing humanitarian assistance. This determination is reflected in the implementation of General Assembly resolution 46/182, passed in December of 1991.

This resolution affirms that humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. Accordingly the UN has a central and unique role to play in providing leadership and coordinating the efforts of the international community to support the affected countries.

The implementation of resolution 46/182 includes the creation of a contingency funding arrangement, that is, a central emergency revolving fund of US $50 million as a cash-flow mechanism to ensure the rapid and coordinated response of the organizations of the system. The UN will also establish a central register of specialized personnel and teams of technical specialists, supplies and other resources that can be called upon at short notice by the UN.

The leadership of this UN initiative will be provided by a high level official, the emergency relief coordinator, designated by the Secretary-General, to work with the entities of the UN system dealing with humanitarian assistance. This position combines the functions previously carried out in the coordination of UN response by representatives of the Secretary-General for major and complex emergencies, as well as by the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator.

This emergency relief coordinator, among other duties, is charged with facilitating the access by the operational organizations to emergency areas for the rapid provision of emergency assistance. In cases of complex emergencies this may require negotiation with all parties concerned to obtain their consent and, where needed, the establishment of temporary relief corridors, days and zones of tranquility and other forms.

Safety of relief teams in conflict zones

There are many operational considerations in complex emergencies. One of the most crucial is that of the safety of relief teams in conflict zones. As coordinators of assistance for the displaced, the UN staff bears a special responsibility for ensuring that all personnel operating in or adjacent to conflict zones work in conditions of minimum risk and maximum security. Guidelines and procedures for personnel should be established in conjunction with the host government and, where possible, with insurgent groups. The UN is often charged with the responsibility of notifying relief workers and other organizations about the risks they may face from military operations in or near their relief activities. In this regard, the UN is often able to obtain clearances for special flights into contested areas on airplanes bearing United Nations markings, to arrange for safe transport through the front lines in specially-marked UN vehicles, and to establish special relief corridors whereby food and relief supplies can be delivered under flags of truce or through designated corridors, without undue restraint. It is important for the UN to carefully assess the risks before encouraging relief organizations to commit personnel and resources to operations in non-secure areas. A UN assurance that an area or means of transport is safe carries much weight - and responsibility.

Two of the most important aspects of working in remote and insecure areas are communications and stand-by evacuation support. To the greatest extent possible, UN coordinators should ensure that relief personnel have immediate and 24-hour access to telecommunications facilities and that suitable means are immediately available to evacuate personnel in case of an emergency. This may entail the assignment of light aircraft to be available on short notice to evacuate staff.