When Disaster Meets Conflict

Focus on ISS
  • How do state, non-state and humanitarian actors respond to disasters in conflict-affected situations?
  • How do the different types of conflict - high intensity conflict, low-intensity conflict and post-conflict - impact communities and the aid offered?

These are just a couple of the questions that this five-year research project is considering.

The core of the research consists of case studies in conflict countries where disasters occur. We also seek to understand how the politicization of disaster response affects the legitimacy, power and relations between governance actors.

Led by Professor Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction, the research team is composed of Isabelle Desportes, Rod Mena Fluhmann and Samanth Melis (PhD researchers), and Roanne van Voorst (Post-doc) conducting research on the impact of disaster on conflict. The research is funded by the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Conflict aggravates disaster and disaster intensifies conflict

Responses to disasters triggered by natural hazards have changed considerably in recent decades: away from reactive responses to disasters and towards more proactive attention to risk reduction, as well as away from state-centred top-down approaches towards more deliberately involving non-state actors and communities in the formal governance of disaster response.

However, in research and policy, little attention has been paid to scenarios where disasters happen in conflict situations, even though a significant proportion of disasters occur in such contexts. There is evidence that conflict aggravates disaster and that disaster can intensify conflict – but not much is known about the precise relationship and how it may impact upon aid responses.

How we work

Our research is divided into two broad strands: the core research with an expert panel and case-studies in countries where disaster meets conflict, and intersectional research on areas where humanitarian governance overlaps with other domains, such as peace-keeping.

In the course of our research, our interests have expanded to other areas where humanitarian response intersects with other domains of intervention, including:

  • gender and security
  • community resilience
  • development
  • peace-building
  • areas where disaster response meets refugee care

Some examples of our work

The case studies are divided into areas of high-intensity conflict (Afghanistan and South Sudan), low-intensity conflict (Ethiopia and Myanmar), and post-conflict situations (Sierra Leone, Nepal and Colombia). Below are just three examples of our studies and the types of issues we investigate.

Drought response in South Sudan, 2016 - South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. The 2011 referendum resulted in the country’s independence and self-governance; however, conflict between factions of the government and an acute economic crisis led, in 2013, to an internal crisis and civil war. In 2016 South Sudan was affected by an especially intensive drought and recurring floods.

The main challenges that disaster responders faced were physical access, funding and insecurity. Given these constraints, a main concern was how to prioritize between drought-impacted areas and people. This case study thus zoomed in on the issue of ‘triage’, finding that the factors of feasibility, funding and needs very much come into play.

South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda

South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda. Credit: Rod Mena Fluhmann

Cyclone Komen response in Myanmar, 2015 – Cyclone Komen made landfall at a time of heightened Myanmar identity politics—a few months after four discriminatory ‘Race and Religion’ laws were passed and a few months before the tense November 2015 elections.

The research explores how civil society organizations, international non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and donor agencies tried to provide relief to marginalized minorities in the ethnic States of Chin and Rakhine. The findings detail how, particularly in the context of rising identity politics, humanitarian governance more than ever encompasses the governance of perceptions.

Aftermath of Cyclone Komen, Myanmar in 2015

Aftermath of Cyclone Komen, Myanmar. Credit: Alamy

Mudslide in Sierra Leone, 2017 - In 2017, a mountain in the heart of Sierra Leone’s capital city broke, causing an avalanche, mudslide and flash flood, leaving over 1,000 dead and thousands homeless in its wake. Our research here investigates how disaster response evolved in this country struggling to develop under post-colonial, post-conflict, and post-ebola conditions.

The research focuses on two levels of governance: the national level, where the disaster formed another moment to renegotiate intra-governmental powers; and the local level where the disaster fed ongoing tensions between local state chiefs and national state institutions.

Aftermath of the mudslide in Sierra Leone, 2017

Aftermath of the mudslide in Sierra Leone. Credit: Samantha Melis

Intersectionalities in the governance of aid

In our research on intersectionalities in the governance of aid, we cover topics such as:

  • Gender, sexuality and violence in humanitarian crises. Our research focuses mainly on the Democratic Republic of Congo concerning originally the responses to sexual violence; more recently shifting attention to transactional sex in crisis situations.
  • Refugee care in a champion country for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR): Rohingya in Bangladesh. Our ongoing fieldwork looks into how its DRR track record helped Bangladesh organize care for the influx of Rohingya.
  • Curaçao and forced displacement from Venezuela. We consider the impact of the crisis in Venezuela on Curaçao, and investigate the role of the Netherlands.
  • Forced migration from Europe’s borderlands. Our work investigates how humanitarian agencies deal with the challenges of refugee care in Europe, focusing particularly on Lesbos (Greece), Calais (France), and Libya.
  • Accountability and humanitarian aid. How has accountability towards affected populations changed, particularly in the light of the sexual abuse scandal in the humanitarian aid sector which came to light in 2018?
  • Resilience and citizenship. We investigate the relationship between vulnerability and resilience, discussing the role of ‘citizenship’ in disaster- and conflict-affected settings.
  • Humanitarian access in high-intensity conflict settings. We engage in this topic through developing a project with the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution on humanitarian access and peace interventions in Syria. 

Refugee camp in Bangladesh (Rod Mena Fluhmann)

Refugee camp in Bangladesh. Credit: Rod Mena Fluhmann

Uptake and societal engagement

We always aim to carry out research that is not only scientifically robust, but that is also socially relevant and engaged: research that really makes a difference. We participate in international consultancies and collaborations, events and conferences, regularly write opinion and blog posts for a wider public, and have produced research briefs for all of our case studies.

We recently also updated our website – www.iss.nl/whendisastermeetsconflict where all our publications and other outputs are freely available for download.


When Disaster Meets Conflict

When Disaster Meets Conflict research team from L to R: Thea Hilhorst, Roanne van Voorst, Samantha Melis, Isabelle Desportes, Rod Mena Fluhmann



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