Disaster diplomacy: Oil spill, radiation leak and epidemic will be simulated by researchers to test Russia-Norway relations


Guest contributor
A two-year investigation into disasters around Svalbard kicked off Jan. 19-20 with a planning meeting at The University Centre in Svalbard. This project’s focus is whether or not dealing with disasters – before, during and after – can be used more in the Arctic to foster peaceful links between Norway and Russia. Conducting the study in Svalbard aims to make the research useful for those living in the archipelago.

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Researchers from the United Kingdom, Russia and Norway gather at The University Centre in Svalbard in January for the beginning of a two-year “disaster diplomacy” project examining future challenges in Svalbard, and how they may affect Norwegian-Russian relations. Photo courtesy of Ilan Kelman.

Disaster risks are expected to increase across the Arctic as more people move to the region, as more infrastructure is built, as economic activities expand, and as the environment continues changing. With these changes, fears over disputes and conflicts have been voiced including with respect to Norway-Russia relations. Svalbard epitomises the situation, challenges, and opportunities with regards to disaster-related conflict and cooperation.

Disaster diplomacy examines how dealing with disasters does and does not impact diplomatic collaboration. This project uses Norway-Russia relations on, for, and around Svalbard to examine how dealing with disasters might or might not be used more in the Arctic and the High North to foster links between Norway and Russia.

The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway’s program on “Russia and the High North/Arctic” (NORRUSS).

Nine researchers from London, Moscow, and around Norway decided on specific scenarios, the data collection methods, and how to work with policy makers and practitioners. Three disaster possibilities were selected to see how Norway-Russia relations might be helped, be hindered, or be unaffected.

One scenario is oil spill emergency management, building on the extensive work, training, and experience already available. The two others have had little work so far. First, radiation release from a ship, which might be a nuclear-powered vessel or might be transporting nuclear waste. Second, a disease outbreak in Barentsburg.

Key themes are who would be involved and how Norwegians and Russians would work together. Not everything for disasters happens formally in a top-down manner, so how might informal processes, structures, and networks be involved?

With Svalbard being developed as an Arctic Ocean hub for emergency management, could wider areas of Norway-Russia cooperation emerge? And what role exists for science diplomacy, especially for environmental monitoring, risk analysis, and safety science?

The project is just beginning so we need and are seeking your input. Please contact the project leader Ilan Kelman.


Ilan Kelman is a researcher at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. He has participated in disaster diplomacy studies affecting areas worldwide since 2004.