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When War and Weather Conspire

In an increasingly vicious cycle, conflict pushes people from their homes — then floods or landslides force them out of the U.N. tents where they took shelter.


A swamp is a bad place to live in tents. Mud turns to rivulets or dirty streams when rains come, breeding mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Thin mattresses soak through, leaving people to sleep in water teeming with waste.

For as many as 70,000 people in Bentiu, in South Sudan’s northern Unity State, this has become the norm. Since 2013, the country’s protracted civil war has forced residents to flee their homes as armed groups attack towns with extreme brutality. But without an entrenched, well-planned emergency infrastructure that can handle the displaced, internal refugees have been forced to head to the nearest United Nations camps. These sites have sprung up in some inhospitable places in a makeshift effort to give some protection to an increasingly vulnerable population. In Bentiu’s case, a camp was built under emergency conditions in a wetland. And when the rains come, life in the swamp becomes exactly what you might imagine: miserable.

In midsummer of last year — the height of the rainy season in South Sudan — things got so bad for the displaced in Bentiu, “people were living knee-deep in floodwater contaminated with raw sewage,” Doctors Without Borders reported. “Many slept standing up, their children in their arms.” Some simply had to flee. Again. The number of people infected with malaria rose, and 175 latrines collapsed, increasing the threat of a cholera outbreak.

The refugees in Bentiu weren’t alone. By mid-August, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that about 70 percent of the 1.3 million people displaced by war in South Sudan were living in flood-prone sites.

What the Bentiu camp faced is being called a “toxic cocktail” by the authors of a new report on displacement due to natural disasters, published by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center on Monday. That label refers to what happens when people displaced by war end up being struck again, this time by Mother Nature. “It’s rare in sub-Saharan Africa that someone is displaced only once,” says Alexandra Bilak, the head of policy and research at the center and one of the authors of the report.

Populations struck by both war and weather are hardly confined to Africa, however. More than 70 percent of areas affected by severe flooding in Bosnia in 2014 had been laid with landmines during the war in the early 1990s, and 700 homes belonging to refugees were destroyed, the government’s Deputy Security Minister Mladen Cavar told Deutsche Welle. And in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Herat provinces, a third of displacements in 2014 were due to the combination of ongoing conflict and drought or other natural disasters.

The effects of repeated displacement are devastating on both personal and community levels, Bilak says. They also pose major challenges in terms of figuring out how to provide help: “The needs of these people — where do you start?”

The problem is only growing. The number of people displaced by disasters has risen by 60 percent in the last four decades, IDMC has found. (In the last seven years, the group estimates, one person was displaced every second.) Worldwide, 38 million people were internally displaced because of conflict as of the end of 2014, and 19.3 million were uprooted by natural disasters. Perhaps most alarming, however, is that 13 of the 33 countries labeled “fragile” and “conflict-affected” by the World Bank — including Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan — suffered “significant new displacement” because of both natural hazards and conflict in 2014. (To answer the obvious question, it does seem that climate change is playing into this situation and will continue to make it worse: According to a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution, in the not-distant future, climate change will “result in large-scale movements of people,” for which “developing states will bear the greatest costs.”)

The instability caused by one crisis makes the impact of another worse, creating a vicious loop that seems difficult to break. “It’s not Mother Nature to blame,” says Alfredo Zamudio, director of the IDMC. “If it was a peaceful situation with good governance, laws that could have reduced people’s vulnerability [in a natural disaster] would have given [them] access to safe areas.”

The fragility of a state affects its response; a vacuum often exists in which there is no ready response system with evacuation plans, habitable areas for temporary resettlement, and channels of aid. The “frequent, toxic mix” of both conflict and natural hazards “complicates the quickly changing, insecure, and highly politicized nature of the problem,” says Zamudio. “People in a complex setting navigate through an archipelago of conflicts and disasters. Displaced people seek shelter from one place to the next, and humanitarian actors have often a complicated task to gain access, identify, and then reach people in greatest need of assistance.”

Perversely, for those who have already been displaced by war, natural catastrophes can sometimes trap them in a disaster zone, making them hard to reach. People without documentation papers, which includes many refugees, cannot move safely when a new crisis hits, says Aurélie Ponthieu, a humanitarian advisor on displacement for Doctors Without Borders. When floods hit Thailand at the end of 2011, for instance, the affected area was in chaos and difficult to physically navigate. Hundreds of Burmese asylum seekers were too afraid to flee, lest they be arrested or extorted because of their lack of documents. “The main challenge was actually finding them,” says Ponthieu.

The combination of conflict and natural disaster often exposes the most vulnerable people in a population to new nightmares. For example, when floods struck rural areas around the city of Pasto, Colombia, four years ago, it was at a time when armed groups were still recruiting children as soldiers, according to UNICEF. During the flooding, schools were hurriedly turned into shelters, leaving kids without a daily, supervised routine, and therefore more vulnerable to recruitment, Zamudio explains. Flooding can also wipe out people’s land and thus livelihood, leaving a gap for armed drug traffickers to move in and either steal land or recruit people to their ranks. As previously secure areas succumb to new pressures, “whoever is there will use the displaced people as a laboratory of influence,” Zamudio says.

It’s critical to disrupt this laboratory, or stop it from existing in the first place, in order to protect the already marginalized: ethnic minorities, children, and women, for instance, who are disproportionately affected by poor response mechanisms and political manipulations in both war and other disasters. Evidence shows that pre-existing inequality can mean these populations bear the brunt of a state’s weak capacity or willingness to provide assistance; they often lack access, for example, to things like well-built shelters or temporary housing. (Developed countries are not immune to this problem, at least on the natural disaster side of the equation. Research shows that Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey’s Latino and African-American populations particularly hard in 2012; thousands of families are still displaced because of difficulties getting loans and other assistance. Meanwhile, in Canada, First Nation communities are still living in hotels after 2011 floods in Manitoba, according to the IDMC.)

But the solutions are not solely material. Indeed, internal displacement won’t just go away because emergency humanitarian aid is thrown at it, Zamudio points out: “The answer is not technical — food and water.” Rather, there needs to be sustainable solutions to bringing people home, no matter the reasons they are displaced, and to preventing others from being forced from their homes in the future. An emphasis needs to be placed on development, the IDMC argues: better governance, transparency, investments in livelihoods, and stronger infrastructure. And while the main responsibility for all this lies with national governments, the international community “needs to keep governments responsible for displacement situations,” Zamudio says, through diplomacy and dialogue about legal protection frameworks for the displaced.

He adds that the world has a duty to help people who’ve been hit with misery not just once, but two, three, or even more times because of war followed by earthquakes, landslides, drought, and other catastrophes. “It’s one of the strongest moral responsibilities the world can have,” Zamudio says. Left on their own, the most vulnerable have no means of permanent rescue: “If we are ever going to be able to say to ourselves, ‘We have done our best,’ we should never leave those people behind.”

Photo credit: Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321

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