The global disaster situation at the doorstep of the 21st century is characterized by three major challenges that confront the humanitarian community: (1) persistence of protracted man-made crises; (2) emerging crisis theatres in areas considered more or less stable in the past; and (3) increasingly adverse effects of natural disasters.
With the end of the Cold War the international system has entered into a transitional phase that, at least temporarily, has not resulted in a new era of peace as many had predicted, but in a spread of wars and violence across the planet. Research institutions had counted 27 ongoing wars and violent crises on the globe in 1997. This figure climbed to 31 in 1998 and to 36 at the end of 2000. Most of them continued unabated throughout the year and some even escalated in 2000. As the majority of these crises are internal in nature, it is the civil population, and in particular its most vulnerable members like children, women, elderly or handicapped persons that are most adversely affected and on which humanitarian aid will increasingly have to concentrate.
Another important indicator to highlight the humanitarian dimension of this phenomenon is the global number of refugees and internally displaced persons. It is estimated that approximately 20-25 million persons are internally displaced as a result of armed conflict and systematic violations of human rights, and more than 12 million people have sought refuge outside their own countries. These numbers - though lower than in the mid-nineties - are still unacceptably high.
If ailing and fallen trees may be used as an analogy for faltering and failed states, some might characterize the cause of failure as poor soil and others would instead blame shallow roots. In the latter view, many of the states that were created or that gained independence after World War II were simply not well prepared to face the daunting challenges of the 1980s and 1990s. The situation for these states is serious but perhaps not entirely hopeless. One cure often proposed is "conservatorship," under which the United Nations would directly supervise or actually take over the government of a failed state until it became fully capable of administering its own affairs.
Protracted crises in West Africa and deteriorating situations in formerly stable states in Africa produce a very this bleak outlook. Most of the nation-states in West Africa have virtually ceased to govern in any meaningful way. All along a coastal crescent from Nigeria west to Liberia, national governments have been overwhelmed by extreme poverty, disease, crime and anarchic violence. Endemic civil wars and clan violence have practically spilt over into a large crisis belt spanning across the continent from Sudan in the north-east, the DR Congo and the Great Lakes in the centre to Angola in the south-west. Practically every state in the region is involved in these crises either through direct military engagement or indirectly as a host country for refugees. Both types of involvement put heavy burdens on the countries of the region and threaten to destabilize the whole continent. This is exacerbated in some regions by the effects of natural disasters such as the ongoing drought that spans from the Horn of Africa far into Asia. Many see no real cure for the sociopathology of several West African states. Foreign aid, even if administered under military protection, has no lasting effect other than to reduce the fiscal and other resources of the contributing countries.
While it appears that a certain stabilisation can be achieved in the Balkans, particularly after the fall of the Milosevic regime in Serbia, continuing adverse structural undercurrents like extreme poverty and economic hardship, organized crime, extreme nationalism and ethnic/religious strife persist in the entire Eastern Europe/CIS region and risk undermining the international community's efforts to stabilise the region. These developments require continued vigilance and a carefully targeted engagement of the humanitarian community in the region. In the medium-term, this engagement will have to ensure a timely hand-over and, where this is not an option, a phase-down of interventions towards a minimum ("safeguard") presence.
The humanitarian situation in other regions of the world continues to be precarious in protracted crisis areas. Current political developments in some of these areas suggest that it might even deteriorate as a result of increased political violence (e.g. in Colombia, Indonesia or the Middle East). Apart from those events, the situation is characterized by recurrent, often seasonally determined, natural disasters mainly in the Caribbean and South East Asia and in the countries situated along tectonic faultlines. Natural disasters in these areas require a combination of speedily implemented one-off measures, but also significant post-emergency response and specific disaster-preparedness measures.
With respect to the occurrence and intensity of natural disasters, demographic changes, environmental degradation, changes of land-use and other factors have resulted in a marked increase of the adverse effects of these natural events across the globe hitting least developed and conflict-ridden states like Afghanistan particularly hard. While the overall death toll associated with natural disasters sharply declined between 1960 and 1980 figures have been steadily on the rise again since. With 80.000 people killed by natural disasters in 1999, the figure reached a new peak since 1991. Dramatic changes can be identified when looking at the steep increase of the number of people affected by natural disasters (i.e. requiring immediate assistance during a period of emergency). Globally, almost 2 billion people have been affected by disasters during the 1990's. 90% of them live in Asia.