Issue 44 - Article 14

A grassroots perspective on risks stemming from disasters and conflict

October 6, 2009
Annelies Heijmans, Ifeanyi Okechukwu, Annemarie Schuller tot Peursum and Regine Skarubowiz


Aid agencies are increasingly concerned with addressing disaster risk reduction in situations of conflict or chronic political instability. However, the interplay between disaster and conflict and the specific impact on people’s livelihoods are still poorly understood. What impact does chronic conflict have on social relations and on people’s livelihoods, and do recurrent disasters further contribute to tensions and divisions, or do they offer opportunities to strengthen social cohesion? To find an answer to this question, we need a better understanding of what affected people do, what survival strategies they adopt and what kind of assistance would be relevant and appropriate to reduce the negative impact of disasters and conflict.

This article discusses issues to consider when programming aid in areas affected by both conflict and disasters, based on grassroots experiences from Afghanistan, Burundi, Nigeria, the Philippines and Sudan. People engaged with local communities in these countries presented their views at a panel facilitated by Mary Anderson at the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies in Groningen on 4–7 February 2009.

Local institutions matter

A focus either on disaster risk reduction or conflict prevention simplifies local realities and will make aid programming less effective. Disaster and conflict outcomes are inter-related. However, how and to what extent they are so depends on local institutional arrangements: the rules, laws, traditions, values, norms and organisations that govern or regulate people’s behaviour. These include power relations, which govern who sets the rules, who benefits from them, and who is excluded.

To understand the impact of both disasters and conflict on local communities and people’s livelihoods, it is crucial to explore local institutions and how they have changed over time. This means exploring institutions which regulate:

• the maintenance of social order;

• the handling of dissent and conflict;

• access to and control of resources for securing livelihoods;

• social protection;

• the management of collective resources;

• the implementation of gender and household policies; and

• community survival strategies and solidarity with the most vulnerable people in the community.

The importance of local institutions was a key insight gained by Cooperation for Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), an Afghan NGO working with eight villages in Balkh province. Balkh is prone to floods and drought affecting the availability of water in a 10km-long irrigation canal used by all eight of the villages. During the spring, floods damage houses and crops in the upstream villages, while downstream villagers depend on these floods for irrigation water. Upstream villagers lobby for flood protection measures, while downstream villagers oppose them because such measures stop them from accessing water during the spring. Tensions between upstream and downstream villages have increased since 2001, when the Taliban were defeated. Under the Taliban, water was distributed according to land size, an approach which helped keep tensions over water in check. After 2001, however, local government positions were seized by elites who changed the water distribution rules to favour upstream villagers, with whom they are closely affiliated. As a result, from March to October upstream villagers take all the water, closing the gates to prevent water flowing to downstream villages. Consequently, the prolonged drought in 2006–- 2007 in these areas forced downstream villagers to diversify their livelihood strategies. Young people opted to join armed groups, whose activities are linked to the broader conflict in Afghanistan. In this case, communities depending on the same irrigation water need to renegotiate the rules governing water distribution to better deal with drought, to reduce tensions over water and to prevent youth from taking up arms.

Affected communities are not passive victims

While it is generally recognised that local communities actively respond to and cope with disasters, in war contexts they are often portrayed as passive victims. Case studies show, however, that these people actively participate in making war or peace. Droughts in Afghanistan and Southern Sudan put pressure on scarce resources. Such conditions cause people in Southern Sudan to attack adjacent villages and cattle herds, while in Afghanistan people engage in the war economy as an alternative option to earn an income. Such harsh circumstances in combination with conflict can further be exploited by external militia to suit wider political and military interests. Although the decision to take up arms is often triggered by disaster, and influenced by limited livelihood options and the wider conflict context, local residents can also decide to resist violence and make peace. Instead of focusing on the issues that trigger war or encourage peace, it is important to explore how people act in the face of conflict, approaching them as active and creative individuals.

Engage with ‘friends, enemies and responsible state actors’

Efforts to reduce disaster risk and stop violence locally draw on the social and organisational skills of community members and their ability to engage with a wide range of actors. Examples from Nigeria, Southern Sudan and the Philippines show that grassroots early warning systems not only warn people of potential danger or disaster risk, but also encourage – in fact they require – the involvement of those who initiate risk reduction or peace efforts, those potentially involved in violence and acts that increase people’s vulnerability and actors whose responsibility it is to maintain law and order and provide safety and protection. Typically, local leaders or local NGOs play a facilitative role.


Box 1: A multi-level early warning system on conflict and disasters connecting grassroots organisations to state actors

In Nigeria, conflict stems from tensions over land, or is ethnic in nature with religious undertones. Floods, windstorms, oil spills and environmental degradation function as catalysts. Over time, people, particularly women, who are most vulnerable to violence and disaster impacts, have developed the ability to interpret signs and patterns of disaster threats and conflict, enabling them to take timely action to prepare for disasters and violence. The West African Network for Peace Building (WANEP) recognised this capacity and encouraged women to systematise and institutionalise their knowledge into an early warning system and to connect it to a multi-level computerised communication and response system. Women’s groups now relay information concerning disaster threats and possible violence to village authorities, the council of chiefs and the police, to authorities at a higher level and to WANEP at national level. In this way, responses to prevent violence from escalating or to mitigate disaster risks are carried out in a more coordinated manner. Another result is that women have gained influence in decision-making at village level, a function previously reserved only to men. WANEP compiles early warning information from many communities in different parts of the country, and shares this nationwide overview with civil society organisations and government authorities to encourage proactive responses.


In Southern Sudan, natural disasters such as seasonal flooding exacerbate poverty because they destroy livelihoods and displace people. Subsequent shortages cause conflict and intensify cattle raiding as a way of securing livelihoods among the agro-pastoralist Nuer and Dinka tribes. In turn, clashes over grazing land and water destroy livelihoods, cause insecurity and increase people’s vulnerability to future droughts or floods. To reduce disaster risks, World Vision encourages people to form disaster preparedness committees tasked with reviving indigenous early warning systems for rainfall and winds. World Vision also provides tools to improve drainage systems and dykes to protect people’s crops. Young people, who were the perpetrators of attacks, are made responsible for the construction and maintenance of the dykes. In this way, cattle raids have been reduced as young people are given opportunities to improve their community’s livelihoods. In order to enhance cooperation between hostile communities, World Vision has provided training on non-violent conflict resolution, organised peace conferences and helped local leaders to settle disputes peacefully. To ensure lasting reconciliation, local institutions seek support from the National Peace Commission and government officials to work out ethnic and political power struggles.

In post-conflict Burundi, recurrent natural hazards increase people’s vulnerability. Drought and resulting food shortages in 2006 caused people to migrate, putting pressure on host communities’ land and resources. Humanitarian organisations started food distributions, but these only increased conflict between the displaced population, residents and repatriated Burundian refugees, as some groups were served while others were excluded. To reduce tensions, the Burundian affiliate of the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) facilitated a process of community dialogue. Representatives from conflicting parties – men, women and young people – exchanged views on the tense situation, its consequences and possible solutions. Through negotiated dialogue, community representatives worked out a ‘community social contract’ containing commitments to address the needs of vulnerable groups, enhance social cohesion and ensure the sound management of natural resources. A peace committee formally signed the contract and monitored compliance, and an action plan was developed to combat land degradation and enhance food security. Confidence and social cohesion among the various groups improved and agricultural production increased as a result of improved water management and the adaptation of agricultural techniques appropriate for drought-prone areas.


Box 2: ‘Spaces for Peace’ in Mindanao

In Mindanao in the Philippines, local clergy have created ‘Spaces for Peace’. A council of elders monitors the security situation and engages with the principal armed groups – the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – through dialogue and negotiation, and advises local government officials on what action to take. The local government recognises the ‘Spaces for Peace’ as valid entities and cooperates in the implementation of a forceful arms control policy. People not only benefit from immediate improvements in security, but are also emboldened to invest in their livelihoods, increasing their resilience against disasters and conflict.


Implications for aid programming

When aid agencies seek to support local communities affected by both disasters and conflict, they first need to understand how people have historically made a living under these difficult conditions. This includes exploring the economic, social and political linkages between combatants and civilians in order to understand what people do, their motives and risk perceptions. The next step is to explore the crucial institutions in the community, and how they relate to the wider socio-economic and political context.

The cases described here show the relevance of strengthening community institutions like early warning systems, social contracts and Spaces for Peace. They highlight people’s organisational and political abilities and their capacity to engage with a broad range of actors including those committing violence, at and beyond grassroots level. Local conflicts are often intertwined with larger and geographically wider social and political dynamics. Likewise, disaster vulnerability connects local conditions to the macro-context and economic, social and political processes in society. Therefore, efforts to reduce the risks stemming from disasters and conflict will only become effective when people at the grassroots build institutional linkages horizontally with other communities facing similar problems, and vertically with government officials, members of parliament or other decision-makers who can be held accountable for improving safety and protection, or who can influence policies that avoid creating new risks and mitigate the impact of existing ones. To maximise effectiveness, it is important that aid agencies recognise the inter-regional and even international dimensions of the issues which they intend to address locally. If they do not do so, they will fail to find durable solutions to the issues underlying local disaster and conflict vulnerability. Reducing risks stemming from the interplay of disasters and conflict requires above all a long-term commitment both from people at the grassroots and from supporting agencies.

Annelies Heijmans is a doctoral candidate and consultant, Wageningen University (Disaster Studies), the Netherlands. Her email address is: Ifeanyi Okechukwu is Program Manager Conflict Prevention, WANEP, Nigeria (; Annemarie Schuller tot Peursum is Representative for Oxfam-Novib in Burundi (; Regine Skarubowiz is Program Officer Humanitarian Emergency Affairs, World Vision, Sudan (


References and further reading

A. Heijmans, Making Conflicts and Disasters Less Dangerous: Why Local Institutions Matter, paper prepared for the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, Netherlands, 4–7 February 2009.

I. Okechukwu, Developing Opportunities To Mitigate Man-made Disasters in Nigeria, paper prepared for the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, Netherlands, 4–7 February 2009.

P. Rupiya and A. Schuller tot Peursum, Community Social Contracts for Disaster Risk Reduction in Burundi, paper prepared for the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, Netherlands, 4–7 February 2009.

R. Skarubowiz, Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction in South Sudan: The Need To Address Conflict and Natural Disaster, paper prepared for the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, Groningen, Netherlands, 4–7 February 2009.

M. Anderson and L. Olson (eds), Confronting War: Critical Lessons for Peace Practitioners, Reflecting on Peace practice project, Collaborative for Development Action, 2003,

A. Pain, Understanding Village Institutions: Case Studies on Water Management from Faryab and Saripul, AREU, 2004. P. Richards, ‘New War: An Ethnographic Approach’, in P. Richards (ed.), No Peace, No War (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005).


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