“Mere goodness can achieve little against the power of nature.”—George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

May 25, 2015 saw the devastation left by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck most of Nepal and left 8,219 dead (final figure as of May 13). Drought has plagued both the state of California and the nation of India, while at the same time, flooding has caused deaths in the southeastern United States. And believe it or not, U.S. and other intelligence services have been quietly keeping an eye on all of this.

No, this is not the beginning of a conspiracy theory movie. (Yes, there are some who believe that Texas is purposely being flooded in preparation for takeover.) This is real life, and while weather watching and seismology may not seem to have a purpose in the “sexy and exciting” (sarcasm) world of intelligence and spies, the forces of nature can wreak just as much carnage as the wars that we hope to forestall—and have often, in fact, caused them.

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Nepal earthquake recovery efforts. Photo courtesy of cnn.com

An earthquake in ancient Sparta

The “equals” that ruled ancient Sparta always held a fear of a helot rebellion, and one incident in particular brought reality to their nightmares. In 464 BCE, a massive earthquake leveled the city of Sparta and killed many Spartan warriors along with its citizens. The helots, seeing a chance to finally throw the yoke of slavery off of their backs, seized their chance and staged what became the most serious uprising in Sparta’s history.

The situation soon became so desperate, the Spartans, who were known for their fierce pride and distrust of anyone and anything not Spartan, called on their Athenian rivals for help in quelling the rebellion. But true to form, they quickly reversed their decision out of fear the democratic Athenians might be more sympathetic to the oppressed helots. History shows that the Athenians, furious about Sparta’s humiliating dismissal of the Athenian contingent, never forgot the insult, partially setting the stage for the Peloponnesian War. So, in a sense, it could be said that two conflicts were spawned from one natural disaster.

A cyclone in Pakistan

In 1970, tensions were already simmering between East and West Pakistan, as East Pakistan complained of oppression by West Pakistan. The populations of the two sections came from different ethnic backgrounds and spoke different languages, and the Bengali people of East Pakistan felt they were discriminated against by the government. On November 12, 1970, the huge Bhola cyclone hit East Pakistan with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour and a storm surge 34.8 feet high, coinciding with high tide. Upwards of 500,000 people were killed by the storm and flooding, leading to intense anger at the government and military, which the people criticized for failing to heed warnings about the storm and bungling relief efforts in its aftermath.

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Later, that anger reached a fever pitch when the government announced that it would go ahead with elections scheduled for December, even though most parts of East Pakistan were in no condition to participate. Civil war finally broke out in March 1971, quickly widening into a regional conflict when India intervened on the side of Bengali rebels in East Pakistan. The war finally ended in defeat for West Pakistan, and independence for the new nation of Bangladesh, in December 1971. Again, all this was touched off by natural disaster.

Intelligence and the ripple effect

A report published in 2013 by the United States Institute for Peace, authored by Frederick S. Tipson, titled “Natural Disasters as Threats to Peace,” stresses that as “natural disasters and extreme environmental events” seem to increase in scope and frequency, it becomes imperative that we reconsider how things like urban growth, climate change, and economic woes can lead to conflict. Of note, the report states that “intelligence agencies, think tanks, and academic specialists should increase their focus on the potential for major disasters in various parts of the world to cause economic, social, and political ‘ripple effects’ that lead to deadly conflict.” This is where the spies come in.

When most people think of a response to natural disaster, they usually envision the Red Cross or Red Crescent, Doctors Without Borders, and the U.S. or other military assistance. But behind the scenes, the intelligence agencies of many nations are working to help predict and mitigate other types of disaster. Often, when a nation is struck by an earthquake, floods, drought, or other force of nature, her neighbors will take notice and ears will perk up on a political level. Initially, it may be that the leaders and policymakers need to know if the effected nation’s political infrastructure has remained intact, and of not, what its state is. They will want to know who is in charge, how they are planning to respond to the disaster, and if they plan to approach other governments for aid.

But sometimes, they want to know if the disaster will spur that nation or its neighbors to do something desperate or nefarious. Unlike in many futuristic movies (although this certainly could become the case), intelligence analysis and research has shown that nations are unlikely to go to war over a shortage of water. But that does not mean that conflict cannot arise, that drought or other disaster will not play a part, and that some would not take advantage of the circumstances. When the United Nations made the decision to intervene in the situation in Somalia in 1992, the intention was not to chase warlords all over Mogadishu and have U.S. troops in a fight for their lives in the heart of the city, but that is exactly what happened.

Today, topics like global warming, the reduction of polar ice caps, and the effects of whaling on the world’s oceans are not the stuff that a would-be spy will think of when he or she hits send on their application to the CIA. Still, they may very well find themselves on the border of a nation suffering from the effects of a natural disaster, ready to meet that asset who can provide the plans and intentions of leadership that may indicate a country a step away from conflict and collapse.