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From Thailand to Aceh and Sri Lanka: how extreme weather events and disasters can be catalysts of fragility or an opportunity for peace

Flooding in the city of Bangkok, Thailand

In 2011 Thailand was hit by unprecedented monsoon rains far above the average rainfall of the previous 30 years. Two million people across 26 provinces were affected. During the crisis, hundreds of civilians took it to the streets to protest discrimination by the Flood Response Operation Centre and the unfair distribution of water, electricity supply, shelter and food. Civilians were so angry that they broke a sandbag wall in Bangkok which was protecting a wealthy district from water surges. Public unrest and discontent with the government continued until a military coup in 2013.

Government reactions key to understanding the link between disaster and fragility

This example shows how climate change in the form of extreme weather events can overwhelm states and societies, subsequently increasing fragility and political instability. As the impacts of climate change increase in the years to come, so will the number and intensity of extreme weather events. Many regions around the world are expected to be hit harder and more frequently. This lends new urgency to the question of what we can learn from past disasters if we are to avoid the crisis of tomorrow.

The protests in Thailand were not simply caused by an unprecedented disaster. The floods occurred when Thailand’s political landscape was already fragile. Violent anti-government protests had been a common occurrence since 2008. In 2011, a new government came into power which had to prove that it could redress class discrimination and deeply rooted citizen resentment: in this regard, it failed. How a government reacts to a disaster and how that reaction is perceived are key in understanding the link between disaster and fragility.

How the 2004 tsunami increased tensions in Sri Lanka and was used to build peace in Aceh

Looking beyond extreme weather events, important lessons can also be learned from the reactions of different countries in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Aceh in Indonesia and Sri Lanka were both hit by the tsunami. At the same time, both were also embroiled in protracted conflicts. But while the disaster response in Aceh is credited with helping to resolve the long conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government, it increased tensions between the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the government in Sri Lanka.

Understanding the opportunity to ‘build back better’, the post-tsunami recovery in Aceh was also structured so as to also build peace. This started with the international community, which used “disaster diplomacy” to push for an end to the decades-long isolation imposed on Aceh during the years of the separatist conflict, thus providing not only disaster relief but also a sense of security to the population. The newly elected Indonesian president had already started an initiative to renew peace talks before the disaster, but the disaster played a crucial role in bringing these talks to fruition. At the same time a special agency – the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias – was created. The goal was to prevent the unequal distribution of funds and to rehabilitate the region not only physically, socially, and economically but also psychosocially and culturally – thereby  jointly addressing the impacts of the tsunami and the conflict.

In Sri Lanka, the situation was the opposite: peace talks had stalled and efforts to develop a joint response between the Sinhalese government and Tamils failed. Unequal treatment for people displaced by the tsunami and those displaced by conflict added to the tensions. Tamils felt ignored and discriminated against and complained that the government did not provide adequate assistance. Inter-communal incriminations returned, and the violent conflict re-ignited in late 2006, when the Sinhalese-dominated government defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

Seven compound climate-fragility risks that threaten global security

These examples show how disasters can contribute to fragility or be used as an opportunity to build peace. As the pressures of climate change on states and societies increases, the reaction of governments – especially in countries with a history of conflict and fragility – will be pivotal. The combination of extreme weather events and disasters is one of seven compound climate-fragility risks that A New Climate For Peace identifies as threats to global security. In addition to this global risk analysis, the report also analyses how existing policy processes and institutions in the fields of climate change adaptation, international development, humanitarian aid and peacebuilding are ready to address compound climate-fragility risks. In addition, the ECC Factbook covers all seven compound climate-fragility risks, letting readers further explore case studies like the ones on Thailand, Aceh and Sri Lanka.