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Out of touch? Why disaster risk reduction can no longer neglect conflict

Written by Katie Peters

The 2017 International Day for Disaster Reduction marks an annual celebration of the positive progress made in reducing the risk of disasters. But there’s one word you’re likely not to hear: conflict. Conflict and fragility have been neglected for too long by the mainstream disaster risk reduction (DRR) community.

It remains the reality that ‘put simply, the poorer the country the higher number of deaths there are likely to be’, say The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). Unfortunately, low-income countries tend to be places that are fragile or affected by conflict. As experience from Concern Worldwide shows us in Somalia, Chad and Haiti, the impact of conflict in exacerbating vulnerabilities is a recurring and depressing feature of natural hazard-related disasters.

My report last year found that 58% of deaths from disasters occur in the top 30 most fragile states and figures of people affected are often vastly under reported. The 2017 Global Humanitarian Assistance Report for example revealed that millions of people affected by disasters are not captured in the data – including those affected by drought and flooding in Ethiopia, Somalia and Malawi. People living in fragile and conflict-affected contexts are therefore being neglected in disasters statistics that are already concerningly high.

Disasters are preventable. It may not be politically palatable to say so, but there is no such thing as a natural disaster. The general public has become accustomed to disasters being presented as catastrophic ‘unforeseen’ events in 24 hour news cycles that strive to report events as they develop, but the reality is that few disasters are entirely unexpected or unpreventable. For this reason, we can and should be doing more to prevent disasters from natural hazards in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.

Yet multilateral and bilateral investments in ex-ante DRR have been slow to materialise. For every $100 spent on humanitarian response in fragile states, only $1.30 was spent on DRR between 2005 and 2010. For countries such as Zimbabwe, this can be as low as $0.03 on DRR for every $100 spent on response. As many of us have been arguing for years now, this is infuriatingly back to front – it’s too little, too late.

So, when the need is so clear, why is investment so low? I asked some of the world’s experts on DRR to shed light on why, despite having global DRR agreements in place since 2005, advancing progress in fragile and conflict affected contexts is largely neglected. Here’s what I found out

1. Many believe that international DRR frameworks are not the place for discussions on fragility and conflict.

The word ‘conflict’ does not feature in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. It politicises discussions and compromises consensus on global frameworks. But for me, this is part of the challenge that needs to be overcome – disasters are highly political. To neglect conflict as an underlying driver of vulnerability to disasters is to neglect a major driver of risk.

The reasons why some communities are more likely to experience disasters than others stem from not only their exposure to hazards but also to political economic, physical, social and cultural factors. These factors shape people’s ability to mitigate and prevent disaster risk, and to be ready to respond.

2. Many argue that establishing peace and security takes precedence over the pursuit of DRR in fragile and conflict affected contexts, and that functioning and effective institutions are an essential foundation for pursuing DRR.

Few would disagree that lifesaving should be a priority. But whether state level institutions are an essential pre-requisite is debatable, and what of the role of DRR in supporting institution-strengthening?

As one interviewee told me, ‘…you can always find ways to support DRR through community infrastructure [even in absence of state structures]. We can observe the way people are living and organising themselves despite long-term instability and find ways to support them to cope with disasters, while they’re already coping with instability and conflict’.

The reality is that we don’t know enough about what types of DRR actions are viable and appropriate in different situations of conflict and fragility.

3. There is an assumption that governments of ‘fragile and conflict-affected’ countries have neither the capacity nor the appetite to engage in DRR, even though they have signed up to global and national DRR commitments.

It is also often said that governments are unwilling to discuss the relationship between disasters and conflict, though for a number of years now I have listened to the discussions at the African Ministerial DRR dialogues which reveal this is not true. Representatives of African governments have discussed and called for more active engagement in understanding how DRR can contribute to the peacebuilding and conflict prevention agenda.

Embracing the next frontier

To date, the DRR community hasn’t responded to this call, but a changing political landscape offers hope for redress.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has made sustaining peace and conflict prevention core themes of his tenure. With armed conflict continuing to cause significant human suffering with far reaching consequences, this provides an obvious and worthwhile refocusing of the UN system.

It also provides opportunity for the DRR community to get serious about conflict. Conflict undermines a country’s ability to function effectively, including in the oft neglected duties of the state to protect its citizens from disasters.

By next International Disaster Reduction Day, I want to see ex-ante DRR action in fragile and conflict-affected contexts by national governments, supported by: UNISDR creating space in the biannual DRR convening cycle for an active community of practice to advance this theme, a group of political champions to promote DRR in the sustaining peace agenda, and overseas development assistance channelled to these difficult places in order to reach the poorest.

Tackling disasters in fragile and conflict affected contexts is the next frontier for disaster risk reduction.