Tag Archives natural disaster

Could we have prevented the disaster in Libya?

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.

Image by Hans from Pixabay

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.

Further information

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.


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How disasters can increase armed conflict risks, but also facilitate diplomacy

Disasters often have severe impacts on human security. But how do disasters impact armed conflict dynamics? When striking armed conflict zones, disasters indeed frequently trigger higher fighting intensity, confirming concerns about a climate-conflict nexus. However, this effect only occurs in a minority of cases, specifically in locations with a high disaster vulnerability. More importantly, disasters can also reduce civil war intensity, for instance by posing logistical challenges to armed groups. While such effects are often short term, they provide important windows of opportunity for relief provision and diplomacy, writes Tobias Ide.

Photo Credit: DFID (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

When disasters like droughts, earthquakes, floods, and storms strike vulnerable areas, the consequences can be devastating. This is particularly the case in places with active armed conflicts, as demonstrated by the recent floods in Pakistan and Nigeria, droughts in the Horn of Africa, and the massive earthquake in Syria (and Turkey). In armed conflict zones, several factors increase vulnerability to and complicate recovery from disasters. These include insufficient early warning systems, the battle-related destruction of important infrastructure (e.g., hospitals, power plants), a state incapable of or unwilling to implement prevention measures (e.g., building codes), and unsafe conditions for relief workers. According to some studies, disaster-related deaths are 40% higher in areas with a history of armed conflict.

While discussions such as the above have focused on the effect of armed conflicts on disaster recovery efforts, fewer have sought to ask how disasters impact conflict dynamics. What happens if disasters strike civil war-ridden areas? Does fighting become more intensive? Will the government or rebel forces back down to allow aid delivery? And what does this mean for aid workers and diplomats?

My recently published book titled Catastrophes, Confrontations, and Constraints: How Disasters Shape the Dynamics of Armed Conflicts seeks to address these questions. The book analyses 36 cases of disaster-conflict intersections from 21 countries based on desk-based case studies, expert interviews, and quantitative data. I focussed on countries and areas with an active civil war that were struck by a large-scale disaster to understand how disasters affect conflict risks. Choosing a medium number of cases provided me with the opportunity to combine in-depth qualitative insights with systematic statistical procedures — two approaches that are often kept separate in climate security and disaster conflict research. Below, I briefly detail two main lessons from the book: that the vulnerability of certain contexts to disasters can affect their vulnerability to conflict intensification, and that disasters don’t affect armed conflict dynamics in a unidirectional way, nor in the same ways in different countries.


Vulnerability matters for how armed conflict parties respond to disasters.

One of the key findings of the book is that vulnerability matters. This might not come as a big surprise because the cases analysed in the book all experienced major disasters, most of which caused more than 1,000 deaths. By definition, places suffering such disasters are quite vulnerable to the effects of extreme natural events.

However, vulnerability also matters for the behaviour of the armed conflict parties. Only in countries whose economies are highly dependent on agriculture and where poverty rates are very high, and where disaster impacts are hence often very severe, we can detect a disaster-related change in conflict intensity. The 2010 floods in Pakistan, for instance, affected almost 20% of the country’s territory, displaced around 20 million people, and caused a direct economic damage of USD 9.7 billion. The disaster impacts were so severe due to political instability and socio-economic underdevelopment, and posed enormous logistical challenges to both the state military and the insurgent forces. Put differently: Only if such vulnerability factors are present, the societal impacts of disasters are far-reaching enough to affect decision making by government militaries or rebel groups.


The impact of disasters on armed conflict dynamics is multifaceted.

Furthermore, the impact of disasters on armed conflict dynamics is multifaceted rather than unidirectional. For example, in around half of the countries I studied, disasters had no relevant impact on the armed conflict at all. For about one-quarter of the countries, fighting activities intensified after the disasters took place. This usually happens when the government troops are adversely affected by the disaster while the rebels remain largely unaffected or can even capitalise on the disaster. After the 1999 earthquake in Colombia, for instance, the government deployed 6,000 state security forces to the affected areas and cut down on social programs to win hearts and minds in contested regions – a situation the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were happy to exploit. I observed similar dynamics after the 1998 floods in Assam (India), the 1999–2001 drought in Uganda, the 1990 Luzon earthquake in the Philippines, and the 1994 floods in Egypt, among others.

Yet, in another one-quarter of the cases I studied, disasters facilitated a de-escalation of the armed conflict. After the 1997 floods in Somalia, for instance, both competing United Somali Congress (USC) fractions faced problems paying and feeding (and moving around) their troops due to an agricultural collapse in the southern “breadbasket” regions. Rebel groups faced similar problems during COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance in Iraq or Thailand (the book has a separate chapter on the effect of COVID-19 on armed conflicts). Civil wars also de-escalated significantly after other disasters I studied, such as cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh (2007) or the 2005-2006 drought in Burundi.

These results are partially in line with claims that climate change and environmental stress increase armed conflict risks, for instance when disasters trigger more intense fighting during civil wars. However, this impact is not deterministic, but only happens in certain contexts: Most disasters had no impacts on armed conflict intensity. Neither is the disaster-conflict nexus unidirectional: In one out of four cases, the disaster facilitated a de-escalation of fighting. While this effect was often temporal and rarely lasted more than twelve months, it might open up important windows of opportunity to deliver aid and promote diplomacy.


Addressing the root causes of vulnerability first and foremost

Based on these insights, what can be done about disasters striking conflict zones? To start with, some of the factors that increase disaster vulnerability are the same that make armed conflict onset and disaster-related conflict intensification more likely: widespread poverty, persistent inequality, or dysfunctional state institutions. Addressing these factors can hence provide benefits on multiple fronts, including for disaster risk reduction, economic development, and security policies.


Protecting disaster relief workers

On a more pragmatic level (and in shorter time horizon), the safety of both national and international disaster relief providers is an important concern. In the past ten years, more than 1,200 aid workers have been killed and many more attacked in conflict areas, with a clear upward trend. If disasters weaken one conflict party and the other side cannot exploit it (because it is too weak, suffers from the disaster as well, or needs to restrain to avoid public backlash), conflict intensity is likely to decline. This provides a window of opportunity to negotiate the safe delivery of humanitarian aid and to upscale diplomatic efforts.

By contrast, if the rebels benefit relative to the government, the conflict is likely to escalate after the disaster. In such a situation, anyone involved in the delivery of relief or reconstruction in the respective area needs to be alerted. Negotiated agreements with the rebels and pro-government forces or increased public pressure on conflict parties to allow safe aid delivery are possible courses of action in such a situation.


Starting discussions on disaster-conflict intersections

Lastly, an informed discussion about disaster-conflict intersections is of utmost importance, particularly among growing concerns about climate security. Areas affected by both phenomena are most likely to need additional support (by local, national, and international actors), yet are also hardest to navigate for those seeking to provide this support.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Tobias Ide is Senior Lecturer at Murdoch University Perth and Specially Appointed Professor for Peace and Sustainability at Hiroshima University. He has published widely on the impacts of environmental change and security and consulted NATO, the World Bank, and the United Nations, among others.

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Do Natural Disasters Stimulate Trade? by Chenmei Li

Typically, disasters are seen as disruptions of normal economic activity and thus reducing trade. However, the existing empirical evidence for a negative relationship between disasters and trade is contradictory. On the contrary, it has been recognised that disasters may stimulate trade. How come? And what are the policy implications of this finding?

While this article deliberates on these central questions in brief, the motivation to write this article stems from my recently published collaborative work (Li and van Bergeijk 2019 in Nitsch and Besedes) on the same subject where this topic is discussed in greater detail.

Ensuring economic resilience and preventing trade disruptions has been an important issue for research and policymaking. The impact of natural disasters, closely related to this issue, is thus a topic of rising relevance for development studies. This is particularly true for countries that suffer often from natural disasters, especially the Small Island Development States (SIDS). In general, the occurrence of natural disasters has also been increasing over the past decades.

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Pic 2.pngFurther, disasters are commonly seen as disruptions in the normal economic activity and thus causing reduction in trade (e.g. Gassebner, Keck and Teh 2010; Oh and Reuveny 2010; Martincus and Blyde 2013; Hayakawa, Matsuura, and Okubo 2015). However, the existing empirical evidence does not convincingly support a negative relationship between disasters and trade, both when it comes to imports and exports (Li and van Bergeijk 2019).

Creative destruction

Disasters could also potentially impact trade positively, as recognized by more recent studies, through demand, technology upgrading and firm productivity. For example, disasters generate import demand in order to replace the lost production (Adam 2013). From a supply side perspective, Pelli and Tschopp (2012) pointed out the creative destruction aspect of disasters, supported by micro evidence from Yogyakarta Indonesia (Brata, De Groot and Zant 2018). The evidence suggests that the 2006 earthquake in Indonesia had a ‘cleaning effect’ on the manufacturing sector, forcing out unproductive firms, and opening rooms for new firms, which are recognized to be even more productive and have higher productivity growth than the surviving firms.

Recent macro level empirical evidence from 63 countries supports the counterintuitive idea discussed above (Li and van Bergeijk 2019). The main finding is that the natural disasters are associated with higher trade growth, both regarding imports and exports. In addition, the evidence suggests lower level of development is associated with higher disaster resilience. In particular, Least Developed Countries (LDCs) appear to have higher trade resilience, possibly due to better access to aid and greater awareness of the aid community. Preliminary evidence suggests Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) enhances trade resilience by different mechanisms for imports and exports. The enhancing effect for imports is associated with FDI flows while for export it is linked to FDI stocks. It is suggested that the political system, i.e. level of democracy, the often-assumed significant factor to resilience, is not determinative.


What does this finding imply? First of all, the study suggests that trade is even more important than normally thought. The countries that encounter more natural disasters, i.e. SIDS, are often the ones that largely depend on global markets. In a world of de-globalization (van Bergeijk 2019), trade resilience and preventing trade disruptions should be given attention for research and policy-making, and should be considered as a global joint task.

Second, mechanisms that are primarily discovered to cope better with, or even take advantage of natural disasters, offer new insights to policy makers. For example, giving priority to attract FDI could be an effective method to remain resilient. After natural disasters, a group of new firms with great growth potential is likely to emerge. Providing appropriate support to these firms could contribute to better economy. However, this requires more research on firm behavior after a natural shock as suggested by Brata, De Groot and Zant (2018).

It may be difficult to conclusively state whether disasters are good or bad for trade. The conclusiveness suffers from limitation of econometric methods. And there is a lack of country case studies on this subject. However, the importance of trade and investment flows for the resilience against natural disasters is clear. This gives extra reasons for policy makers and the international communities to be alert to possible trade disruption. This might be of particular significance given the current global dynamics, where the China-US trade war, Trumpism, and Brexit often dominate the headlines and create threat to global trade.

Adam, C. (2013). Coping with adversity: The macroeconomic management of natural disasters. Environmental science & policy, 27, S99-S111.
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van (2010). On the Brink of Deglobalization: An alternative perspective on the world trade collapse. Deglobalization 2.0
Brata, Aloysius GunadiA.G. & de Groot, Henri H.L.F. & Zant, Wouter. (2018). Shaking up the Firm Survival: Evidence from Yogyakarta (Indonesia). Economies. 6. 26. 10.3390/economies6020026.
Chenmei Li and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk. (2019). Do Natural Disasters Increase International Trade? In Nitsch, V. and T. Besedes (eds), Disrupted Economic Relationships, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. (Book chapter A). https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/disrupted-economic-relationships
Gassebner, M., Keck, A., & Teh, R. (2010). Shaken, not stirred: the impact of disasters on international trade. Review of International Economics, 18(2), 351-368.
Hayakawa, K., Matsuura, T., & Okubo, F. (2015). Firm-level impacts of natural disasters on production networks: Evidence from a flood in Thailand. Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, 38, 244-259.
Oh, C. H., & Reuveny, R. (2010). Climatic natural disasters, political risk, and international trade. Global Environmental Change, 20 (2), 243-254.
Pelli, M., & Tschopp, J. (2012). The Creative Destruction of Hurricanes. http://www.freit.org/RMET/2012/SubmittedPapers/Martino_Pelli03.pdf.
Trade and Openness During the Great Depression and the Great Recession Edward Elgar: Cheltenham.

About the authors:


Chenmei Li is currently a Project Specialist at Institute of New Structural Economics at Peking University, Beijing. She was in Economics of Development program, Batch 2014-15 at ISS. During the program she worked with Professor Peter van Bergeijk on the DEC research project “Crisis, deglobalization and developing countries”.pag van bergeijk

Peter van Bergeijk (www.petervanbergeijk.org) is Professor of International Economics and Macroeconomics at the ISS.