When disaster meets conflict

In research and policy, little attention has been paid to scenarios where disasters related to natural hazards happen in conflict situations, even though among the 400 disasters each year, more than 30% strike countries already affected by conflict.

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.

    When disaster meets conflict (Discord) animation

    About the research

    When Disaster Meets Conflict (Discord) studied the nexus between humanitarian aid and disaster governance.

    It analysed how state, non-state and humanitarian actors respond to disasters in three conflict settings (high, low-medium, and post-conflict) in order to understand how the type of conflict impacts communities and the aid that the affected people are offered.

    The project, which ran from 2015-2020, aimed to learn about the challenges, experiences and success factors for aid in each of the three settings.

    The project, which ran from 2015-2020, aimed to learn about the challenges, experiences and success factors for aid in each of the three settings. It also sought to understand how the politicization of disaster response affects the legitimacy, power and relations between governance actors. The research project comprises an international expert panel with 30 experts (half from the Global South) and 9 country case studies.

    In addition to the core research, the project also conducted smaller case studies as well as intersectional research on areas where humanitarian governance overlaps with other domains, such as peace-keeping, gender and security, community resilience, development, and refugee care.


    This research was conducted in Colombia, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, France (Calais), Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Curacao and Venezuela.

    Societal relevance

    The research team strives to ensure that the research they conduct is not only scientifically robust but also socially relevant and engaged. The team produced multiple research briefs, participated in many international consultancies and collaborations, events and conferences and wrote numerous opinion and blog pieces for a wider public.

    Analyzing local responses to COVID-19

    In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers joined forces with MA students and PhD researches to investigate local mechanisms to cope with COVID-19 and its spill-over crises.

    Main project findings

    The main project findings have been summarized in four key research briefs.

    The first brief provides an overview of general lessons learned on disaster governance in conflict settings and highlights the importance of a scenario-based approach.

    The following conflict-specific briefs analyse the interaction of disaster and conflict through three case studies in each scenario:

    • high-intensity conflict in South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen
    • low-intensity conflict in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe
    • post-conflict in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Haiti

    Outputs and findings

    Take a look at our various project outputs for both academic and non-academic audiences.

    Throughout the project, the researchers have drawn several significant conclusions relevant for practitioners, policy makers and academics alike.

    For an overview that highlights the importance of understanding how the type of conflict affects disaster response, and vice versa, check out these general briefs.

    30 key humanitarian actors with vast experience in the field participated in an expert panel held in line with the so-called Delphi method. This method uses a cyclical research design with several rounds of questioning.

    The goal was to establish an informed, evidence-based study about some of the most pressing challenges that are currently hampering the effectiveness of aid, as well as to collect observations of highly experienced practitioners on trends and recent experiences in the field.

    In particular, emphasis was placed on ‘best practices’ and success factors for aid projects in different conflict settings, new actors and coalitions in the aid industry, and insights on the usefulness of new technologies and other promising dynamics. Work on the final round of this survey is ongoing.

    Rod Mena Fluhmann conducted research of high-intensity conflicts in South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

    For an overview of the lessons learned regarding disaster response in high-intensity conflicts, check out this brief.


    For a more detailed description of some of the case studies, read the individual country research briefs below.

    Rod Mena Fluhmann

    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. While drought is common in the arid country, 2016 brought about an especially intensive drought and recurring floods.

    The main challenges that disaster responders faced were complex logistics (especially related to 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 again very much come into play.

    Drought response in South Sudan

    Rod Mena Fluhmann

    In Afghanistan, unlike what happens in South Sudan and most other countries affected by high-intensity levels of conflict, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programmes are mushrooming, chiefly in areas under Afghan government control.

    The reasons are multiple:

    • the international recognition of Afghanistan as one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters in the world and subsequent calls for action;
    • the government commitment to tackle this vulnerability;
    • a decade long presence of international NGOs in sectors of the territory.

    This case study investigates why and how these projects are developed, how they connect with the governance and coordination of disaster management, response at the national level, and what technologies are used in this process. In addition, this case seeks to understand how DRR projects and the multiple conflicts in the country interact and affect each other.

    A topic of inquiry in Afghanistan, jointly with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), was the use of technology for humanitarian purposes in high-intensity conflict topics.

    Disaster risk reduction in Afghanistan

    Isabelle Desportes conducted research of low-intensity conflicts in Ethiopia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

    For an overview of the lessons learned regarding disaster response in low-intensity conflicts, check out this brief.


    For a more detailed description of some of the case studies, read the individual country research briefs below.

    2016 was a year of hydro-meteorological and socio-political stress for Ethiopia. A 50-year drought event triggered by the El Niño climatic phenomenon left 10.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

    Coincidentally, the largest protests under the present political regime unfolded, followed by the declaration of a State of Emergency in October 2016. Hundreds of protesters were killed, thousands jailed extra-judicially.

    How did the relations between aid, state and societal actors affect the response to the 2016 drought in Ethiopia, and which strategies did actors develop to support disaster victims, given the context of protests and the declaration of a State of Emergency? 

    The case study concludes that role playing and discursive games played an important role in opening up, and closing, the humanitarian space within which disaster response took place in Ethiopia.

    Drought response in Ethiopia

    Based on 4 months qualitative fieldwork in Myanmar in 2017–2018, this 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 following Cyclone Komen in 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 findings detail how, particularly in the context of rising identity politics, humanitarian governance more than ever encompasses the governance of perceptions.

    Samantha Melis conducted research of low-intensity conflicts in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Haiti.

    For an overview of the lessons learned regarding disaster response in low-intensity conflicts, check out this brief.


    For a more detailed description of some of the case studies, read the individual country research briefs below.

    Samantha Melis

    In 2017, a mountain in the heart of Sierra Leone’s capital city broke, causing a mudslide and flash floods, leaving over 1,000 dead and thousands homeless in its wake. How did disaster response evolve in this country that is struggling to develop under post-colonial, post-conflict, and post-Ebola conditions?
    The research focuses on two levels of governance:

    1. Firstly, at the national level where the disaster formed yet another moment to renegotiate intra-government powers
    2. Secondly, at the local level where the disaster fed ongoing tensions between local state chiefs and national state institutions
    Mudslide in Sierra Leone

    Samantha Melis

    When the 2015 earthquakes struck Nepal, the country was still undergoing a contested constitutional process that was instigated after the Maoist insurgency ended in a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. The constitution was fast-tracked after the disaster and sparked protests and a border blockade in the Southern Terai region, as marginalized groups demanded a more inclusive process.

    The post-conflict context of Nepal has been characterized by a volatile political environment, extending to the District, VDC and Ward levels. The earthquake response attracted a large influx of aid, which both supported and overwhelmed a divided state. Tensions arose between state-building and disaster response agenda’s when state and non-state actors differed in their approaches.

    • How did the post-conflict context affect the earthquake response?
    • How were non-state actors able to balance a weaker state capacity, the political volatility and diverging goals?

    While the state attempted to increase control through a one-door policy, multiple windows were opened by non-state actors to either creatively comply or by-pass the state’s response.

    Earthquakes in Nepal

    Fernando Vergara

    In the early morning of 1 April 2017, the city of Mocoa suffered a massive mudslide when torrential rains led three smaller rivers to burst their banks, releasing a giant flow of water, mud and rocks onto the city.

    Soon after, Mocoa was ‘flooded’ again, but this time by the large diversity of local, national and international humanitarian entities that came to provide disaster relief. In one of the departments most heavily marked by the Colombian civil conflict, the Mocoa mudslide also concurred with a time of transition, a few months after Colombia’s historic peace agreement.

    How did this assemblage of humanitarian agencies respond to the disaster in conflict-affected Mocoa?

    This case study focuses on the entanglement of humanitarian aid with intentions of development and peace-building, and concludes how the locally-led response should be differently understood if it wishes to serve the broader humanitarian scope.

    Mocoa mudslide response in Colombia

    In our research on intersectionalities in the governance of aid, we cover topics such as gender and security; community resilience; development; peace-building; and areas where disaster response meets refugee care.

    This theme has gained importance in humanitarian policy and practice, and has become an increasingly important part of this project.

    After more than four decades of discourses on ‘gender in development’ and a substantive history of evolving international law and practice on women, peace, and security, the humanitarian aid field recently started taking gender seriously. The focus in the sector on sexual violence has brought significant attention to some of the challenges that many women face, but has also reproduced a generalized image of women as victims.

    ‘Gender’ often continues to mean a singular concern for women, neglecting questions of agency and the dynamic and changing realities of gendered power relations. Research under this heading has mainly focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo. This initially concerned the responses to sexual violence. It then shifted to attention for transactional sex in crisis situations.


    By Dorothea Hilhorst, Rakib Ahmed and Rodrigo Mena, fieldwork in 2019.

    In 2017, Bangladesh saw the influx of more than 700,000 Rohingya seeking refuge from extreme violence in Myanmar. This refugee crisis comes to a country that is very vulnerable to disaster and has been a forerunner in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction.

    • How did the track record in DRR help Bangladesh in organizing the care for the refugees around Cox Bazaar?
    • How has the governance and response evolved?

    The results of this research were presented by Rakib Ahmed at the international conference on ‘Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions’ organised by North South University July  2019.


    By Dorothea Hilhorst, Peter Heintze and Dennis Dijkzeul, fieldwork 2018. 

    The economy of the small island state of Curacao has always been strongly interwoven with Venezuela, where many people from Curacao went for work, residence, study or medical care.

    Today, with the crisis in Venezuela, the table seems to have turned and thousands of Venezuelan migrants seek protection on Curacao.

    • What is the impact of this crisis on the small community of Curacao?
    • And what is the role of the Netherlands, since Curacao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands? The Netherlands always favours the policy to settle refugees in the region of displacement, but now this country is the region and yet seems little engaged in the care for Venezuelans.

    Opinion piece in Dutch daily Volkskrant

    This theme concerns the intersection of humanitarian aid and forced migration in Europe. While refugees in Europe have been analysed from many angles, this research focuses on how the humanitarian agencies deal with the challenges of refugee care on a continent that has ample resources to help but frames refugees increasingly as unwanted strangers.

    Case studies

    Refugee care on Lesbos, Calais and Libya

    By Dorothea Hilhorst, Maria Kagan and Olivia Quinn, fieldwork 2016 and 2018. Research presented at the 4th International Humanitarian Studies Association held in the Hague, August 2018.

    Interface between volunteer and professional humanitarians in Lesbos

    By Roanne van Voorst, fieldwork 2016. Paper under review in VOLUNTAS.

    This theme concerns the changing accountability relations in the humanitarian sector, especially with regards to accountability towards affected populations. The theme gained even more prominence with the scandal about sexual abuse in the sector in 2018.

    Case studies and publications


    Taking Humanitarian Accountability to the Next Level. Podcast by Dorothea Hilhorst.

    There is a trend in disaster studies, and other domains of development, whereby the notion of vulnerability gives way to the idea of resilience.

    However, leading disaster scholars argue that this is much more than a conceptual change. It leads away from questions of ‘why are people vulnerable and who is responsible’ to relying on communities’ capacities to survive and adapt without considering structural change.

    The researchers engaged with this topic through organizing a workshop hosted at the International Institute of Social Studies, and a panel (2016 DSA Conference at the University of Oxford) discussing the role of ‘citizenship’ in disaster- and conflict-affected settings.


    Humanitarian access becomes an increasingly contested issue in situations of violent conflict. In settings like Syria, Yemen or South Sudan, humanitarian aid deals with a multitude of actors who are often suspicious or even hostile towards humanitarian relief efforts.

    At the same time, humanitarian access agreements are often the only feasible point on which conflict parties can agree, at least temporarily, which makes humanitarian access negotiations highly relevant also beyond the sphere of humanitarian actors.

    In cooperation with Jan Pospisil of the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

    The researchers engaged with  this topic through developing a research project on humanitarian access and peace interventions in Syria (interviews and analyses were conducted in 2018/2019)  and through establishing a working group of experts on this topic.

    The research team has also developed a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Disaster Risk Reduction and humanitarian aid in conflict settings.

    Trailer - When disaster meets conflict MOOC

    The MOOC is meant primarily for practitioners, but also open to students or otherwise interested people.

    This MOOC teaches you to develop accountable, high-quality and ethical responses to disaster in conflict-affected areas. It stimulates participants to think about humanitarian aid, DRR and disaster response in contexts where conflict is ongoing, lingering, or has characterized the setting in recent times, as well as about the hard choices and dilemmas faced by humanitarian actors in conflict settings.

    Moreover, you will learn to distinguish the different challenges and effective, positive examples of aid in three types of conflict settings.

    Through videos, interviews, guest lectures and realistic case-studio, learning becomes both relevant and fun; everything you learn will be applicable for practice in the field.

    More information and registration

    Interested in this MOOC? Full details and free enrolment are available on Coursera.

    In collaboration with Lucy Hodgson and Bram Jansen, Dorothea Hilhorst and Rodrigo Mena developed a manual to assist researchers to conduct their field-based research or fieldwork in hazardous, remote or complex environments as safely and securely as possible.


    Section 1  - deals with the particular security considerations posed by field-based research and suggests a set of ethical guidelines for field-based research
    Section 2 - is about fieldwork and details how to conduct context analysis and risk assessment as well as how to plan and stay healthy during the course of field research
    Section 3 - is largely comprised of checklists and key considerations to assist researchers in managing their own personal security, both in terms of preventive and reactive measures

    The Manual is available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.


    In addition to releasing the manual, the researchers have teamed up with ISS and the Erasmus University of Rotterdam to raise awareness of individuals about safety in the field, as well as to develop institutional measures which can and should be taken to increase the safety of researchers during the fieldwork. Both the manual and the training events were created in order to address universities lagging behind in creating a security system for researchers including a policy, training, and insurance.

    This blog post by Dorothea Hilhorst looks into the difficulties associated with ensuring the right for researchers to conduct their research safely - 'A Double Message about Safety and Security for Field Research: “Protection Is Crucial” and “Don’t Overdo It”'. 

    Photos taken in the course of our research

    When disaster meets conflict

    When disaster meets conflict

    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Samantha Melis
    7/18 Nepal - Barpak Remembrance earthquake
    Fernando Vergara
    Samantha Melis
    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Rod Mena Fluhmann
    Samantha Melis
    Samantha Melis
    Samantha Melis


    • When Disaster Meets Conflict is funded as part of the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (Vici) scheme (project no. 453/14/013), financed by the NWO, the Dutch Research Council. NWO facilitates excellent, curiosity-driven disciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research.

      Talent Programme Vici

      Talent Programme Vici is one of the largest grants for individuals in the Netherlands and targets outstanding senior/advanced researchers. The funding enables the talented scientists to set up their own innovative line of research and put together their own research group. 

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