Fuel to the Fire: Natural Disasters and the Duration of Civil Conflict

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International Interactions

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Do natural disasters prolong civil conflict? Or are disasters more likely to encourage peace as hostilities diminish when confronting shared hardship or as shifts in the balance of power between insurgents and the state hasten cessation? To address these questions, this study performs an event history analysis of disasters’ impact on the duration of 224 armed intrastate conflicts occurring in 86 states between 1946 and 2005. I contend that natural disasters increase conflict duration by decreasing the state’s capacity to suppress insurgency, while reinforcing insurgent groups’ ability to evade capture and avoid defeat. First, disasters’ economic impact coupled with state financial outlays for disaster relief and reconstruction, reduce resources available for counterinsurgency and nation building in conflict zones. Second, the military’s role in administering humanitarian assistance can reduce the availability of troops and military hardware for counterinsurgency, prompt temporary ceasefires with insurgents, or both. Third, natural disasters can cause infrastructural damages that disproportionately hinder the state’s capacity to execute counterinsurgency missions, thereby making insurgent forces more difficult to capture and overcome. The combination of these dynamics should encourage longer conflicts in states with higher incidence of disaster. Empirical evidence strongly supports this contention, indicating that states with greater disaster vulnerability fight longer wars.


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