Skip to content

When It Rains, It Wars: Part II

What impact do natural disasters have on combatants?

Words: Sam Ratner

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Last week on Deep Dive, we began our look at interactions between different forms of insecurity with an article about how post-electoral tensions condition sexual violence against civilians. This week, we’ll turn from threats facing civilians to threats facing combatants. A new article by political scientists Yasutaka Tominaga and Chia-yi Lee examines incidents in which, to use their evocative title, “disasters hit civil wars.”

There is a great deal of back and forth in the literature about what actually happens when a hurricane or volcanic eruption or the like hits an area primed for — or already embroiled in — civil conflict. Some researchers look at the deprivations brought on by natural disasters and see flames hitting a tinderbox: Disasters can separate people further from the central government and disrupt the established economy in a way that opens up opportunities for violent political contestation. In their view, disasters are actual drivers of conflict. Other researchers, though, see disasters as snuffing those same flames. To them, the disruptions caused by disasters prevent potential rebels from gathering the resources they need to launch a real rebellion, leading to a reduction in the risk of conflict. Both sides have compelling examples that illustrate their arguments, which suggests, unsatisfyingly, that they’re both right some of the time.

The connection between natural resource reliance and rebel resilience after disasters is very clear: No more natural resources for a resource-reliant insurgency means no more money, which in turn means a dramatically reduced capacity to carry on the fight.

How can we tell who to trust in which cases, though? Enter Tominaga and Lee, who offer a theory about when disasters help and hurt rebel resilience. Their theory relies on an explanatory variable familiar to scholars of civil wars: the extent to which rebels rely on exploiting natural resources to earn their money. In the past, natural resource reliance has been put forward as an explanation for rebel violence against civilians, sexual violence, and coercive recruitment strategies, all through somewhat roundabout logical pathways. For Tominaga and Lee, however, the connection between natural resource reliance and rebel resilience after disasters is very clear: The disasters destroy the resources (or at least make them harder to access). No more natural resources for a resource-reliant insurgency means no more money, which in turn means a dramatically reduced capacity to carry on the fight.

To test their theory, Tominaga and Lee put together a list of all the rapid-onset natural disasters in recent years that had hit areas of civil conflict and a list of all the insurgencies in those areas coded by the extent of their reliance on natural resources. Before the disasters hit, they found, the resource-reliant insurgencies were quite strong. If there are mines, farms, or oil wells, and you can access their wealth in one way or another, it turns out you can keep your rebel groups going for quite a while, even under state pressure. After disasters, however, the resource-reliant groups were greatly weakened in comparison to their non-resource-reliant counterparts. What’s more, the worse the disaster, the worse the disparity became. A storm bad enough to kill a few people was a major annoyance to resource-reliant rebels, but a storm bad enough to kill hundreds was a potential death knell.

The two main ways rebels extract money from the natural resource trade is extortion and smuggling. Extortion takes place at the source — rebels take protection payments from farmers or mine owners. Smuggling, however, is a fee-for-service business and requires rebels to set up significant infrastructure to be able to move goods effectively. In normal times, Tominaga and Lee found, being an extorter is better than being a smuggler — there are fewer costs, and the profit margin can be astronomical. After disasters, however, smugglers fare better than extorters. If the disaster has flooded the mine or washed away the crop, there’s nothing to protect. But smuggling infrastructure is adaptable — and there are always things to be smuggled.

These kinds of small, tangible distinctions between conflicts make for fertile ground for researchers. When no single overall theory can explain the interaction between two forms of insecurity, differences in outcomes often come down to a rebel group’s choice between smuggling and extortion as a money-making scheme. As researchers continue to investigate the intersections between drivers of insecurity, more small inflection points will reveal themselves.

Sam Ratner

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.