Desperate Venezuelans risk life and limb getting to Colombia. © UNHCR/Viktor Pesenti

When disasters and conflict collide

In the Colombian rainforest’s pre-dawn hours, a loud, ugly noise shakes Flor awake. She hears her daughter-in-law call ‘avalanche!’ before rushing into the night with her family under a deadly flow of mud and rocks.

The 2017 Mocoa landslide was Colombia’s worst disaster in decades. More than 300 people were killed and hundreds more went missing.

Flor survived the disaster, but her husband did not. She was one of thousands who came to Mocoa to seek refuge from armed groups. Nobody warned her that the small town was dangerous for other reasons. Surrounded by mountains and six rivers, Mocoa is a hotspot for flash floods and landslides which could easily strike again.

Some survivors were relocated, but many had no option but to stay in damaged homes. They were trapped by high rents in the safer part of town and the threat of attack beyond its borders. Around the world, the double vulnerability of conflict and disaster are part of many people’s daily lives. But this is not by chance.

Almost 80% of the landslide’s victims were also victims of conflict. Violence in Bajo Putumayo had forced them to flee to Mocoa. Without safe affordable housing many people constructed their own homes, and with insufficient disaster planning by authorities, exposure to natural hazards increased. It is little wonder the scale of the devastation was so high.

A 2016 study reveals that 58% of people killed by disasters live in the world’s 30 most fragile states. Even then, the numbers of people affected are vastly under-reported. Although the international community does respond to these events, areas in conflict receive comparatively little aid for disaster risk reduction.

For every $100 spent on emergency response in fragile states, only $1.30 is spent on disaster risk reduction and preparing for future disaster events.

Despite this clear need, policymakers, practitioners and funders promoting disaster risk reduction have for too long neglected to pay special attention to contexts of conflict. Little is known about how conflict increases people’s vulnerability to disasters and impedes the attainment of disaster risk reduction goals.

As a result, states and their citizens in contexts of conflict, fragility and violence often lag in preventing and reducing disaster risk, increasing the likelihood of setbacks to hard-won economic progress and sustainable development.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) interrogated disaster risk reduction financing, policy and programming to understand the role of conflict, fragility and violence in disaster risk. Our review of over 50 years of research shows how conflicts are deeply embedded in societies and can exacerbate vulnerability to natural hazards.

We are currently developing an understanding of what types of disaster risk reduction actions are appropriate and viable in different conflict contexts to ensure we really can ‘leave no one behind’.