Climate change is associated with an increase in disasters

Interview Thea Hilhorst

Climate change not only occurs in countries with political stability, but also in countries with a barely functioning government due to a conflict situation, or in countries where governments are in conflict with the civilians. How can you try to work on climate adaptation in these countries? “That is an enormous puzzle, often the solution can be found in bottom-up approaches,” argues Thea Hilhorst, professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, argues.

Professor Thea Hilhorst has been conducting studies on humanitarian aid, for over thirty years. As a professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, she recently received a prestigious ERC-grant. In her large research project named When Disaster Meets Conflict, covering nine countries, she looks into what happens when conflicts and natural disasters occurred simultaneously in nine countries, and what can be done about it. Together with her team, she created a MOOC with the same name.

What is When Disaster Meets Conflict about?

“My project is about the situation when disasters occur simultaneously with conflicts. I look into situations that have different causes, or situations where different causes have come together, creating a disastrous situation when combined.”

How can you act on climate adaptation, in countries where the government barely functions due to conflict, or where the government is in conflict with civilians?

“As part of our research project, we worked together with Partners for Resilience, to see how local communities can find bottom-up solutions, if there is a connection to their existential problems. A simple example: pay people to plant trees. Choose an integrated approach, so that people are willing to do something to help address climate change.”

“If you address the vulnerability of people in a certain areas, for example by reducing inequality, the impact of climate change does not have to be so disastrous”

You argue that an earthquake or a flood is not, in itself, a disaster. What do you mean by that?

“You have to be cautious not to confuse the hazard with the disaster. The earthquake or the flood is the hazard. Whether it becomes a disaster or not, depends on how vulnerable the people are who will be affected. It also depends on how the reaction mechanism works. A big storm in a rich, politically stable country is not that dangerous. The same storm in a poor or conflict-affected country, may result in much more damage. For example, if people live in slums, or do not have home insurance. Also, if the government does not have the capacity to set up a warning system or rescue operation, the storm has the potential to become a disaster. The same applies to climate change.” 

What do you mean by that?

“One often reads ‘climate change causes migration’ or ‘climate change causes hunger’. This isn’t correct. Whether hunger or migration results from climate change, depends on whether people have the space to manage climate change. If one disregards this aspect, one can easily sit back with the idea: we can’t do anything about it anyway. The same phenomenon can be observed in the corona crisis: some people have stated that the virus causes all kinds of problems, such as inequality, food shortage. Of course, this is not true. The virus itself is just a bothersome disease, but the way we act upon it is what makes the difference. If it is expected that famines might occur in certain areas due to the corona lockdown, we should make sure this does not happen. For example, by making sure that imports and exports continue, and the market economy is still well-functioning.”

By seeing corona or climate change as a cause, we try to escape responsibility?  

“Yes, correct. And we forget that we can prevent certain disasters. We should ask ourselves: what can we do to minimize certain negative effects? This applies to natural disasters, climate disasters, and corona. “

But isn’t climate change inevitable?

“The process of climate change has been triggered, and is inevitable. We have to continue working on mitigation, but at the same time on climate adaptation, to make sure that the effects will not be disastrous. If we expect that droughts will make agriculture difficult, then based on this expectation, we might want to do something to make agriculture less depended on rain. For example, by irrigation, or by cultivating different crops. We used to speak in terms of yield per acre of field. Now, thinking of climate change, we could start to speak in terms of yield per liter of water ("crop per drop"), and start research on developing drought-resistant crops. That is climate adaptation. If you address the vulnerability of people in a certain area, for example by reducing inequality, the impact of climate change does not have to be that disastrous. I am not saying anything new. There is a lot that has been done already. We challenge the current discourse, in blogs and academic publications. Furthermore, we have meetings with many development organisations.”

“Policy should always be a combination of both. Look at what happens in the communities, and adjust government plans accordingly”

Thea Hilhorst

What is the most important aim of this study?

“Our most important work is conducting research in nine countries, to improve the response to disasters in case of conflict situations. We study disasters in conflict-affected places. We have observed that seventy percent of deaths caused by natural hazard-related disasters, have occurred in countries with conflicts.

Is there a link between a disaster and conflict?

“We think that there is an indirect link. The reason that a disaster becomes a disaster, often overlaps with the reasons that social tensions result in a conflict. There are underlying causes, such as a lack of good governance, poverty and inequality, that both have a negative effect. Subsequently, when a conflict arises in an area, the capacity to manage disasters in that area is reduced in that area. In our research, we have looked at three different kinds of conflict situations: High intensity conflicts (in Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan), low intensity conflicts (in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar) and post-conflict areas (Nepal, Haiti, Sierra Leone). There are all kinds of models on disaster management, but these all are based on the assumption of stable governments. In these countries, the governments are not. It is our aim to show that you cannot treat all solutions nor conflict situations the same way.”

You often advocate a bottom-up approach. How does this fit within your research?

“We regard disasters as a sort of arena, whereas various different actors are of importance: authorities, national and local governments, the population, the communities, and international actors. Who plays what role? And how do they interact? An example: When Ebola became a pandemic in West-Africa, governments acted top-down, with the army taking a leading role. But in these countries, people have no trust in the government, so they started to hide patients. As recently as this year, an Ebola clinic was attacked by the people in Congo. The rumour that Ebola does not exist, but is one of the many lies fabricated by the government to keep the people down, had become so well-spread that healthcare workers were murdered. This is the ultimate consequence if there is no overlap between the top-down and bottom-up approaches. Policy should also be a combination of both. Look at what happens in the communities, and adjust government plans accordingly. This is also the idea that we follow worldwide.”

When Disaster meets Conflict