Coping with calamity: Natural disasters, armed conflict and development aid

PhD Thesis

Rosvold, Elisabeth Lio (2019) Coping with calamity: Natural disasters, armed conflict and development aid. PhD thesis, Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.

​Climate change means we can expect more intense and likely more frequent extreme weather in the future. Many of the countries that will be hit hardest are also the ones that will suffer the most from extreme weather and natural disasters because they already experience armed conflicts, some for years at a time. Existing research has focused on how climate might create new conflicts, with little focus on how these relationships are in fact circular. Although conflict can increase vulnerability towards extreme weather, extreme weather can also affect ongoing conflicts. Knowing more about this relationship is an important step towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

In the thesis I look more closely at what happens when a country in conflict is hit by a natural disaster. More specifically I investigate the actors in conflict – both governments and insurgents – and how their capacity for waging war can change when a natural disaster occurs. Natural disasters can kill, destroy infrastructure and make areas impassable, but they rarely affect a whole country and its actors equally. The thesis uses precise location data on disasters, conflicts, and aid projects to investigate how conflict actors are affected differently depending on where natural disasters occur and where conflicts take place. The thesis also looks at how development aid projects, one of the most important tools we have in tackling disasters and conflict, can be influenced by existing political cleavages. This is the case if distribution of aid benefits the authorities’ supporters, at the cost of vulnerable and often excluded groups.

This thesis finds that disasters which hit conflict zones directly can temporarily reduce the level of violence. This is especially the case in separatist conflicts where rebel groups are responsible for the local population. In addition, it finds that aid projects can make the local population better prepared to tackle extreme weather. However, this assumes that aid is provided to those who need it the most, which is not always the case, especially when aid is distributed along political cleavages. As conflict makes affected areas especially vulnerable to future climate change, the findings of this thesis indicate that conflict resolution might be necessary for vulnerable populations to cope with the consequences of a changing climate.