Cities Coping with Conflict

Strengthening the resilience of urban services during humanitarian response

By Emma Houiellebecq

[TL; DR] As witnessed in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, there is a growing trend towards urbanised conflict, where cities are the new battleground, and millions of civilians are literally caught in the crossfire of urban warfare. This post discusses the impact of conflict on urban services and how humanitarian actors can work with local authorities and service providers to help strengthen the resilience of these urban services.

Figure 1: Damaged buildings in Homs, Syria, 3 June 2014. Source: Chaoyue PAN, Flickr.

Cities are usually seen as places of refuge and hope; hubs of greater economic opportunity and a chance at a better life. However, in many recent armed conflicts, cities have either become the new battleground or are the receivers of mass urban displacement, causing disruption to urban life, and putting a severe strain on urban services. As exemplified in countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza, there is a growing trend towards protracted urban conflicts, which, over decades of repeated attacks, severely undermine urban services and create significant health and sanitation risks for civilians. The impacts of climate change and natural disasters, such as droughts and flooding, tend to further exacerbate social tensions, and contribute to food and water insecurity in cities.

With over 50 million people already impacted by urban conflicts (1), cities need to incorporate strategies to face these challenges, while maintaining functionality and adapting to meet the dynamic needs of an urban population. This is essentially what is defined by urban resilience – the ability of a city to “survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience” (2). The biggest challenge for cities already enduring protracted conflict is to shift from focusing on reactive, short-term relief, to proactive, long-term resilience.

The complexity of urban services

Urban services are the lifelines of a city. They provide people with access to water, electricity, and healthcare, while treating and disposing of wastewater and solid waste. Urban populations are often highly dependent on these services and have minimal coping mechanisms when a service is disrupted. In many cities, infrastructure initially evolved informally as the city grew, with little consideration of the interdependencies between sub-systems (3). As a result, damage or disruption to one service can create a domino effect of disruptions to other services. For example, damage to an electricity network may cause a water treatment plant to temporarily shut down, or a hospital to lose power (4).

The human side of urban services also contribute to their complexities. Many stakeholders are involved in all aspects of planning, operating, and maintaining urban services, such as government ministries, municipal authorities, and service providers. In many cities, each urban service is under the responsibility of a separate authority, who often plan and operate in silos, neglecting to account for their interdependencies with other services (ie. the Ministry of Water Resources; the Ministry of Energy). Additionally, local power dynamics can greatly influence the degree of inclusivity of urban services to marginalised populations (5).

The impacts of conflicts on urban services

Urban conflicts typically feature the repeated use of explosive weapons which can cause direct or reverberating effects on urban services. As defined in a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (4), direct effects refer to immediate and physical impacts, such as damage to infrastructure or death of technical personnel, while reverberating effects refer to indirect and cumulative impacts, such as disruptions to interdependent systems or a reduction in skilled staff who are willing to risk accessing infrastructure for maintenance or repairs. In many cities, the eventual result of repeated attacks is the progressive decline in public health infrastructure and sanitation services. This has been clearly demonstrated by the ongoing cholera outbreak in Yemen since 2016, after Yemeni water and sanitation infrastructure was completely devastated by targeted airstrikes. This is regarded as the worst cholera outbreak in history, with over one million cases of cholera reported (6).

Direct and reverberating effects in Syria:

Water scarcity was already an issue in Syria before the conflict, but now, after extensive damage to the water infrastructure, water supply has become critical.

In the suburbs of Damascus, damages from the conflict have resulted in 60-70% losses in the distribution system due to leakages (7).

To meet demands, water authorities are over extracting groundwater sources, without knowledge of how long reserves will last. Additionally, the wastewater treatment plants in Aleppo and Damascus have been severely damaged; untreated wastewater is being directly discharged into the local environment, risking the contamination of groundwater sources and the resulting impacts to public health (7).

Reverberating effects reaching non-conflict cities:

Reverberating effects can extend beyond political borders to countries and cities not involved in a conflict, yet who are still impacted by mass urban displacement. As a city’s population swells, the demand on urban services increases and adds strain to the existing urban infrastructure. As reported by the UNHCR, this additional strain is not temporary; the average length of displacement is well over 10 years (8). During this time, negative coping mechanisms are often adopted in order to serve short-term needs. Jordan, for example, is the second highest refugee-hosting country in the world per capita, with refugees primarily from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria (9). Over 80% of this displaced population has taken residence in cities (10), putting urban services under severe strain. As the water table drops due to over-extraction, pumping and treatment costs rise (due to the increase in salinity). In addition, the competition over access to water and other urban services are creating social tensions between the displaced populations and the host communities.

Figure 2: Countries with the most refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, mid 2016. Source: Adapted from IRC, 2018, From Response to Resilience.

How should humanitarian agencies respond?

Conflict in urban environments is relatively new territory for humanitarian actors, who are more adept to working in camps or rural settings. The traditional relief-rehabilitation-development paradigm limits the scope of humanitarian interventions to short-term projects, primarily during the relief phase; however, this approach is not suitable to address the scale and duration of protracted urban conflicts (1). Typical traditional humanitarian responses often resulted in the duplication of service delivery systems in order to address people’s immediate needs. This approach not only creates competition with the local service providers, usually making their operations unviable, but it also questions the capacity and responsibility of the local authorities and undermines their efforts (5).

As recommended by the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, humanitarian response needs to shift from a “mindset of supply to support, where they engage with local actors, and invest in the systems that shape cities” (11).

It is increasingly recognised by humanitarian actors, donors and affected cities themselves that a new paradigm is required; one that addresses the complexities of an urban context, builds local capacity and resilience, and accounts for the scale and duration of protracted urban conflicts. As stated by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, “humanitarian response alone is utterly insufficient. We must establish a solid link between the humanitarian, resilience and development dimensions” (12).

To step up to this challenge, humanitarian actors need a better understanding of the system they are working in; the various sectors, hazards, and stakeholders that shape the city. One of the most effective approaches is for humanitarian actors to establish strong partnerships with local authorities and service providers, who have a better understanding of the local needs, dynamics and priorities (1,13). By supporting and strengthening the capacity of local service providers, the scale and longevity of the humanitarian programmes can be much greater (9); after all, these are the local mechanisms which will remain and continue to provide urban services once all the humanitarian actors leave.

In addition, by collaborating with municipal authorities, humanitarian actors can support cities in establishing development priorities and integrating urban resilience strategies into long-term planning. For example, in Amman, Jordan, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) partnered with the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) to support the development and implementation of the Amman Resilience Strategy, which includes initiatives to be more inclusive of displaced populations in urban service delivery (9).


There is no doubt that responding to the impacts of urban conflict brings new and significant challenges to the humanitarian sector. However, by learning to navigate the complexities of this urban context, and by establishing strong partnerships with local stakeholders, humanitarian actors can support cities in strengthening the resilience of their urban services in the midst of protracted urban conflict.


1. ICRC (2015), Urban services during protracted armed conflict: a call for a better approach to assisting affected people, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva,

2. 100RC (2017), Cities taking action. 100 Resilient Cities,

3. Reed, D. et al. (2009), Methodology for assessing the resilience of networked infrastructure. IEEE Systems Journal, 3(2), pp.174-180,

4. Zeitoun, M. & Talhami, M. (2016), The impact of explosive weapons on urban services: Direct and reverberating effects across space and time, War in Cities, International Review of the Red Cross, 98(1), pp.53-70,

5. IRC (2017), Public service delivery in contexts of urban displacement, International Rescue Committee, London,

6. Shaikh, A. (2018), Yemen is currently facing the largest documented cholera epidemic in modern times, UN Dispatch,

7. ICRC (2015), Bled Dry: How war in the Middle East is bringing the region’s water supplies to breaking point, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva,

8. UNHCR (2014), Global Trends: forced displacement in 2014, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva,

9. IRC (2018), From Response to Resilience: Working with cities and city plans to address urban displacement: lessons from Amman and Kampala, International Rescue Committee, London,

10. UNHCR (2018), Fact Sheet: Jordan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva,

11. GAUC (2015), Urban Crises: Recommendations, Global Alliance for Urban Crises,

12. UN-Habitat (2017), Trends in Urban Resilience, United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Nairobi,

13. IISS (2018), Armed Conflict in Cities: humanitarian implications and responses, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Geneva,

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