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Complex emergencies today represent the ultimate pathway of state disruption. Zwi says that recent conflicts such as those in northern Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, the former Yugoslavia, and the province of Kosovo should be interpreted as complex political disasters where “the capacity to sustain livelihood and life is threatened primarily by political factors, and in particular, by high levels of violence.”1 Although each of the over 38 major conflicts that have occurred in this decade since the end of the cold war is unique, all share similar characteristics (box). Most blatant is that they represent catastrophic public health emergencies in which over 70% of the victims are civilians, primarily children and adolescents.
These mainly internal crises are popularly referred to as complex emergencies. The complexity refers to the multifacted responses initiated by the international community and further complicated by the lack of protection normally afforded by international treaties, covenants, and the United Nations Charter during conventional wars.
The aggregate human impact on the environment now exceeds the limits of absorption or regeneration of various major biophysical systems, at global and regional levels. The resultant global environmental changes include altered atmospheric composition, widespread land degradation, depletion of fisheries, freshwater shortages, and biodiversity losses. The drive for further social and economic development, plus an unavoidable substantial increase in population size by 2050--especially in less developed countries--will tend to augment these large-scale environmental problems. Disturbances of the Earth's life-support systems (the source of climatic stability, food, freshwater, and robust ecosystems) will affect disproportionately the resource-poor and geographically vulnerable populations in many tropical countries. Ecological disturbances will alter the pattern of various pests and pathogens in plants, livestock and humans. Overall, these large-scale environmental changes are likely to increase the range and seasonality of various (especially vector-borne) infectious diseases, food insecurity, of water stress, and of population displacement with its various adverse health consequences.