New research published this month gives a better understanding of how and why countries affected by armed conflict are more vulnerable to disasters. In this post, two of the co-authors of this research argue that much of the loss caused by Hurricane Daniel could have been prevented in Libya.
As Libya’s death toll rises over the thousands due to the massive floods triggered by Hurricane Daniel, it’s normal to wonder if such a catastrophe could have been prevented. Over 5,000 people lost their lives in Libya as torrential rain caused two dams to burst near the coastal city of Derna. Relentless rain devastated much of the city, washing entire neighbourhoods into the sea and claiming thousands of lives while leaving tens of thousands of people without shelter.
While authorities and the media have largely attributed the catastrophe to a disaster caused by climate change, evidence suggests that it could have been largely prevented or its impacts mitigated. New research we published this month gives a better understanding of how and why countries affected by armed conflict are more vulnerable to disasters. In this post, based on this study we show how conflict increases human vulnerability to natural hazards and how this could also be the case for Libya — a situation that could have been prevented.
A country ill prepared
Libya has been torn apart by years of conflict, rendering it ill prepared to face the devastation of Hurricane Daniel. The nation is now governed by two rival administrations — in other words two rival governments forming a transitional unity government with strong rivalry, which complicates and slows rescue and aid efforts. In addition, Libya’s infrastructure has suffered from neglect over more than a decade of political turmoil.
A study we just published along with Dorothea Hilhorst on how armed conflict contributes to disaster vulnerability shows that in countries experiencing armed conflict, disasters occur 5% more frequently and that the death rate due to disasters is an incredible 34% higher in such contexts. While most accounts of disaster occurrence focus on their associated death toll or people affected, their higher chance of occurrence should not be taken lightly, especially in places affected by conflict: while people might survive a disaster, the impact of these on their livelihoods can be significant, with their opportunities to recover also reduced.
We found multiple reasons why disasters occur more often, result in higher numbers of deaths, and can significantly impact people’s lives in places affected by conflict.
Poorly maintained and ageing infrastructure
First, conflict causes destruction and prevents the development and maintenance of infrastructure essential to prevent disasters, such as the dams that have been left in disrepair throughout Libya. As we now know, experts had already noted that the first of the two dams to fail, which was finished in 1977, had not undergone any maintenance over the last years.
A lack of financial protection from disasters’ effects
Protracted wars also damage a country’s economy, reducing opportunities to invest in building and maintaining low-risk livelihoods and increasing people’s vulnerability, making them more susceptible to be affected by natural hazards such as flooding and wildfires. For example, people are less likely to have savings or reserves in place when a disaster hits. Communities often do not have the resources to commit to longer-term planning to build more resilient livelihoods away from risk zones. Two large dams built in the narrow valley in Derna were highly vulnerable because the area was filled with poorly constructed high-rise buildings.
Already displaced and with nowhere to flee to
In addition, wars often force people to flee their homes, leaving them in displacement camps and sheltering with families or friends. This increases their vulnerability to disasters. For example, when flooding hit the world’s largest refugee site in Bangladesh, Rohingya families sheltering there had nowhere to flee to and were stuck living in flooded areas, which made them susceptible to illnesses and disease.
The above examples all show that it is not exposure to hazards driving their devastating effects; rather people’s socio-economic vulnerability and social and political decisions affecting built environments, financial security, and overall stability play an equally great role. Climate change can affect the frequency and intensity of these hazards, but if communities are well prepared for them, these events do not have to become disasters. In the case of Libya, while the civil war ended in 2020, the political situation in the country remains fragile. The UN-facilitated ceasefire in 2020 succeeded in ending militarized clashes between eastern and western armed groups, but much remains to be done to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militants, stabilize the economy, and reduce the vulnerability of the population resulting from a lack of financial opportunities and weakened infrastructure.
Disasters are not natural
What we argue is that vulnerability created through conflict and fragility conditions play a bigger role in disasters’ occurrence than ‘exogenous’ natural events. As many scholars have already observed, disasters are socially constructed phenomena that can be prevented. And while climate change can increase the frequency and intensity of events like storms and heatwaves, proper preparation can prevent them from turning into disasters.
Barriers to preparedness
Unfortunately, conflict settings can create significant barriers to preparedness, leading to catastrophic outcomes, as seen in the recent events in Libya. Therefore, in addition to ending the violence, conflict-affected communities also need to be provided with a safe environment that enables them to prepare and which reduces the risk of being affected by disasters.
Finally, the disaster in Libya also highlights another aspect of the interaction between conflict and disaster. Not only should addressing disaster risks receive more immediate attention in the aftermath of war; conflict prevention, resolution, and peacebuilding should be priority approaches to disaster risk reduction anywhere in the world.
If you would like to know more about the research into how armed conflict contributes to disaster vulnerability, watch this short one-minute video.
This post was originally published in PRIO Blogs.
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Nicolás Caso is a Research Assistant at PRIO’s Migration Centre. His research covers diverse aspects of human development including migration, disaster, and conflict studies. At PRIO he currently works mainly conducting quantitative analyses for two high-profile large projects Aligning Migration Management and the Migration–Development Nexus (MIGNEX) and Future Migration as Present Fact (FUMI). Before joining PRIO he researched the interaction between conflict and disasters as part of the NWO funded project “When disasters meet conflict“.
Rodrigo Mena is Assistant Professor of Disasters and Humanitarian Studies at The International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Dr. Mena has studied and worked in humanitarian assistance/aid, disaster governance, and environmental sociology for almost twenty years, especially in conflict-affected and vulnerable settings. He lectures on humanitarian action, disaster risk reduction, methodology, and safety and security for in-situ/fieldwork research.
Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.