ECC Platform Library


The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 in Sri Lanka

Type of conflict main
Intensity 4
Southern Asia
Time 2004 ‐ 2009
Countries Sri Lanka
Resources Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Conflict Summary Ethnic and religious marginalisation caused a civil conflict in Sri Lanka, lasting about thirty years. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exacerbated the existing...
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 in Sri Lanka
Ethnic and religious marginalisation caused a civil conflict in Sri Lanka, lasting about thirty years. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exacerbated the existing conflict between the national government and different separatist groups. In 2009, the most known rebel group LTTE was finally defeated by the Sri Lankan army.
Conflict History

Note: In this conflict, a natural disaster might have contributed to affecting a conflict outcome, but it is not a "typical" case in our framework where environmental change contributed to conflict onset. For this reason, we are not displaying a full conceptual model here as it does not fit the framework.

The independence of Sri Lanka in 1948 triggered the marginalisation of the former privileged Tamil population in the northeast of the island, reaching its peak in the 1970s, when the constitutionally protected minority rights for this ethnic group were disposed. This discrimination caused the formation of the „Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam“ (LTTE) as an armed rebel movement in 1976. According to official statistics, more than 60.000 people were killed and 375.000 were forced to migrate, due to the insurgency in the northern region of Sri Lanka, until a first fragile ceasefire entered into force in 2002 (Le Billon and Waizenegger, 2007).

In 2004, a devastating tsunami hit Sri Lanka, leaving 30.000 people dead and forcing 700.000 people to migrate internally (Enia, 2008). At an early stage, the LTTE accused the central government of discriminating the north by providing insufficient humanitarian aid for the local population affected (Steele, 2005a), leading to intense armed clashes between the national army and LTTE fighters. After five more years of fighting, the Sri Lankan military forces defeated the LTTE in 2009 (AKUF, 2010).

Historical context of the ethnic and religious fractions
The Sri Lankan population is divided historically into two different ethnic and religious factions, which also separates the country geographically. The majority of Buddhist Singhalese makes up 75% of the total population, whereas the Hindu Tamil minority accounts for about 20% and is predominantly concentrated in the northeast of the insular state. After the independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Tamil population was gradually marginalized, accelerated by the abolition of all minority rights. In contrast, the historically discriminated Singhalese majority was now experiencing advantages, e.g. the awarding of prestigious position in society, or lucrative financial support. These developments led to the formation of the LTTE insurgent movement. The initial objectives of this rebellion ranged from a greater autonomy from the national government to a complete secession of the northern region. Shortly after the LTTE emerged, the Sri Lankan military forces began their armed fight against them (Stokke, 1998).

At the end of the 1980s, India decided to intervene in this intra-state conflict. As an important neighbouring state with strong ties to Sri Lanka, India was a perfect refuge for LTTE fighters as well as for refugees, who wanted to escape the escalating clashes in the Tamil region. India perceived the intensifying frays as a threat to its national security and established a peacekeeping force (Indian Peace Keeping Forces) to deescalate the violent conflict and stabilise the region. Especially those claims coming from the Indian Tamil Nadu state with its ethnic proximity to the minority population of Sri Lanka contributed to this decision.

However, this peacekeeping mission was not successful and the Indian forces left the country after 36 months without any major improvements. During that time, another rebel movement, the „Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna“ (JVP), formed. This Singhalese group was established with the objective to fight for a communist and united Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan army defeated the JVP in 1989, giving the LTTE an opportunity to strengthen and broaden its influence in the northern region (AKUF, 2010).

Ceasefire in 2002 and developments thereafter
After two decades of fighting, a ceasefire was reached between the central government and the LTTE in 2002. At this time, the LTTE controlled six northern provinces of Sri Lanka (Le Billon and Waizenegger, 2007). The aim of this truce was to disarm the rebels and offer them greater autonomy in return. Moreover, refugees should have the chance to resettle. Although both sides initially agreed to the ceasefire, the LTTE as well as the central government accused each other of not complying with it and officially boycotted it since 2008 (Goodhand and Klem, 2005).

Resolution Efforts

After the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, large parts of the country’s infrastructure were destroyed and two thirds of the total population were directly affected. This was also true for regions controlled by the LTTE, where more than 9.000 people lost their life due to this natural disaster. As a consequence, the central government as well as the LTTE promised to stop fighting and use their capacity for a pragmatic and effective response (Uyangoda, 2005).

Nevertheless, the election of prime minster Rajapakse in the same year, who was known to advocate for a united Sri Lankan state, together with a poor performance in the relief operations undermined any cooperation effort and led to an increase in violence (Steele, 2005b). Meanwhile, disagreements between the insurgents caused a split of a small group from the LTTE that called itself “Karuna group”. This new movement did not shrink from using violence against the LTTE and was thus able to control two eastern provinces in the Tamil dominated north.

Escalation of violence in the years 2005-2009
In the years from 2005 to 2009, violence between military forces and different insurgents escalated further. In this context, the nationalist government successfully intensified its hard line against the Tamil separatist and launched several military offensives (Sengupta, 2005). With this approach, they tried to use the opportunity of the LTTE being weakened due to the severe impacts of the tsunami. Nevertheless, other interpretations deny any impact of the tsunami on the conflict outcome, claiming that the LTTE would have been defeated anyway, lacking appropriate military capacities (Kuhn, 2009). In 2006, the Sri Lankan army achieved large territorial gains in the northeast that was formerly occupied by rebel groups.

In addition, the LTTE was officially classified as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, making it even harder for the movement to receive any disaster relief or foreign financial support (Enia, 2008). In 2007, government forces moved quickly forward and were abled to completely control the north eastern region, successively pushing back the LTTE and other rebel fighters. Thus since 2008, the LTTE can be considered as defeated. The movement officially gave up their armed fight in 2009, when the Sri Lankan army symbolically captured the regional Tamil capital Kilinochchi (AKUF, 2010).

The case study on Sri Lanka yields further insights when comparing it with the conflict case of Aceh, Indonesia (see Responses to the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 in Aceh, Indonesia). Both countries experienced a civil war lasting over several decades and both were hit by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. Despite these structural similarities, the developments and outcome in the aftermath of the disaster were quite different. While a peace agreement was signed in Aceh, violence escalated in Sri Lanka and the conflict was finally determined by the defeat of the rebel movement after four more years of fighting.

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Manifest Crisis
9 000
Violent Conflict Yes
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement More than 100.000 or more than 10% of the country's population are displaced within the country.
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Agricultural / Pastoral Land
Resolution Success
Reduction in Violence Violence has ceded completely.
Reduction in geographical scope The geographical scope of the conflict has decreased.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future There is no increased capacity to address grievances in the future.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been completely ignored.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity The decline in intensity can be explained purely by the suppression or killing of grievance holders.
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political

Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
Functional GroupNon-State Violent Actor
Geographical ScaleInternal Grassroots
Sri Lankan Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Sri Lankan Army
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal National
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse
Conflict References References with URL
References without URL
Enia, J. (2008). Peace in its Wake? The 2004 Tsunami and Internal Conflict in Indonesia & Sri Lanka, in: Journal of Public & International Affairs 19(1), 7–27.
Goodhand, J., Klem, B. (2005). Aid, Conflict, and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka 2000-2005. Six-Part Series 1. Sri Lanka.
Kuhn, R. (2009). Tsunami and Conflict in Sri Lanka. Joint World Bank-UN Project on the Economics of Disaster Risk Reduction.
Le Billon, P., Waizenegger, A. (2007). Peace in the wake of disaster? Secessionist conflicts and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 32(3), 411–427.
Stokke, K. (1998). Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism as postcolonial political projects from ‘above’, 1948–1983, in: Political Geography 17, 83–113.
Uyangoda, J. (2005). Ethnic conflict, the state and tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka, in: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6, 341–352.


Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Environment & Migration

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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