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Fleeing climate: The silent victims of global warming

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Águeda García de Durango
Editor-in-Chief of iAgua and Smart Water Magazine. Degree in Environmental Sciences.

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  • Fleeing climate: The silent victims of global warming

Data doesn’t lie. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), only in 2016, more than 22 million people were forced to leave their homes as a consequence of the natural disasters that took place in 118 countries and territories across the world. If we go back in time, we can see that since 2008, 227.6 million people have been displaced (an average of 25.3 million per year) for the same reason. In fact, estimates indicate that the number has doubled in the last 40 years, whereas the report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC) on the people displaced in 2015 states that climate-related disasters tend to cause a larger number of displaced people than disasters caused by geophysical hazards.  In 2015, the number of people displaced by climate-related disasters almost triplicated the number of people displaced by geophysical hazards (14.7 million vs. 4.5 million). The report also highlights that within the category of climate-related hazards, floods and storms are responsible for most displacements (8.3 million people fled from floods, and 6.3 people fled from storms, whereas fires caused 87,000 people to flee).

The link between these catastrophes and climate change is undeniable. Even though global warming does not have the same scope, nor the same consequences, across the planet, it does have a well-studied multiplying effect on natural disasters with a sudden impact (such as floods or earthquakes) or with a slow impact (such as drought, desertification or sea level rise). If we add to that the vulnerability and hazards that exist in countries which are already under pressure in terms of availability of livelihoods, food and resources, the result could be deadly.

Climate-related disasters tend to cause a larger number of displaced people than geophysical hazards

The UNHCR is adamant: the links between climate change, disasters and other causes of displacement are now undeniable; conflict is no longer the only cause. Each year more people leave their homes due to a series of factors that include environmental degradation, natural hazards, and the effects of fast urbanisation, lack of water, and food and energy insecurity. Events such as drought, desertification and floods only worsen the outlook.

On the other hand, we have to take into account the context of displacements. In most cases, climate disasters go hand in hand with extreme poverty. In fact, the UNHCR estimates that 98% of the 262 million people that were affected every year by the climate disasters that took place between 2000 and 2004 lived in developing countries.

In fact, if we look into the parts of the Earth that are most affected, we can say that although no regions are immune to global warming, there are, however, certain areas where the risk of displacement associated with climate factors is higher. This greater risk also occurs in countries without the capacity or the resources necessary to prepare properly for contingencies, as shown in the following case studies.

Vietnam: goodbye to the Mekong delta

In January 2018, an article in The Conversation analysed what was happening: in Vietnam, climate change is causing more than 24,000 people to emigrate every year. The 18 million people living in the Mekong river lowlands are experiencing the effects of the phenomenon. In fact, in the past 10 years, 1.7 million people have emigrated from the expanses of prairies, rivers and channels in this region. Some 700,000 people have moved into the area during that time, meaning the rate of emigration duplicated the national average.

Although not all of it can be blamed on climate change, recent events indicate that climate is quite likely having an influence: in 2015-2016, the region experienced the worse drought in the past century, with saltwater intruding more than 80 km inland and destroying 160,000 ha of cropland. It is estimated that during the following year, one of every hundred people living in Kiên Giang, the most affected province, emigrated.

There are more effects derived from climate change affecting the delta. According to the General Department for the Prevention and Control of Natural Disasters of the Vietnamese Government, there are 150 sedimentation areas affected by floods, which amount to more than 450 km in length. This has led to the loss of up to 100 metres of shoreline in the south-west in one year, due to high rates of erosion.

Moreover, saltwater intrusion due to sea level rise (not just to drought) affects thousands of families, unable in many cases to change their livelihoods to cultivate products that tolerate high salinity.

Droughts,oin the other hand, can also be due to the construction of dams upstream, although this does not lessen the impact of climate change in this migratory crisis.

India: floods, monsoons and tropical cyclones

According to iDMC data, in 2015 a total of 3.7 million people were displaced due to natural disasters in India. Of that total amount, the impact of two large floods, together with storms, was responsible for 81% of the displacements, forcing 3 million people to leave their homes.

Specifically, rainfall and floods associated with a weak tropical cyclone recorded in the Bay of Bengal in November of 2015 caused the displacement of 1.8 million people in the states of Tamil Nadu and the south of Andhra Pradesh.

Furthermore, the floods caused by the monsoon associated with the Komen cyclone at the end of July forced the displacement of 1.2 million people in the northern and central states of West Bengal, Odisha, Manipur, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The monsoon also hit the neighbouring country, Bangladesh, leaving 1.6 million people displaced.

Although these numbers are alarming, it is important to note that these high numbers occur in one of the most populated countries in the world. In general, the high population densities in Southeast Asia (a fifth of the world's population) mean the area is very sensitive to changes in temperature. In fact, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from August 2017 concludes that at the end of the 21st century, a large part of the region will not be fit to live due to the effects of climate change.

Vanuatu and Tuvalu: in dire straits

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Pacific are the classical paradigm to understand the reality of global warming impacts. If we consider the size of their population, the risk of disasters is disproportionately high: the inhabited areas on the coast, for the most part impoverished, are exposed to a wide range of hazards from cyclones, floods, landslides, earthquakes and tsunamis.

A clear example was cyclone Pam in March of 2015. This disaster forced one fourth of the population of Vanuatu to flee their homes, leaving about 166,000 people in 22 islands in an emergency situation and more than 65,000 internally displaced persons. 

Pam did not only hit Vanuatu. Its consequences also reached the neighbouring Tuvalu, where it caused significant storms that forced the displacement of 55% of a population of 100,000 people. This constitutes, in relative terms, the highest number worldwide.

But that was not everything. At the end of 2015, and as the El Niño conditions were getting more severe, a drought stopped the recovery of countries from the impact of cyclones and typhoons, bringing about food insecurity in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Ethiopia: extreme conditions, extreme measures

People are displaced not only by excess water; water scarcity has forced entire civilisations to move throughout history, and nowadays it continues to cause migratory movements.

Ethiopia is an example of this: in 2015, it suffered one of the worst meteorological droughts in its history, after two years of scarce rainfall in a country where 80% of the agricultural production and 85% of employment depend on precipitation.

The phenomenon contributed to the internal displacement of more than 280,000 people from August 2015 to February 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This number includes at least 148,000 people displaced due to the severe food insecurity in the affected Afar and Somali regions, where water scarcity has also contributed to increased community conflicts related to competition for pastures and water.

In most cases, climate disasters go hand in hand with extreme poverty

The iDMC has a study of the population displaced by that drought: in mid December 2015, about 72,700 people referred to as 'displaced by drought' were living in makeshift shelters in 24 areas of the Siti zone, in the north of the Somali region. The main cause not to return to their homes was lack of food, and most of them reported having lost their cattle. Likely the reasons for this included lack of access to water, grazing land, veterinary services, livestock markets, cash and credit.

From a more global perspective, the livelihoods of about 7 million shepherds have been undermined by the cumulative consequences of water scarcity. Natural cycles such as El Niño will continue to contribute to extreme patterns of precipitation. To that we add the projection of most climate models: an increase in droughts and floods in Ethiopia in the next decades.

Elsewhere in the horn of Africa, Somalia has recently suffered the effects of a devastating drought. According to data reported by the Norwegian Refugee Council, in March 2017 more than 3000 people fled their homes on a daily basis due to the worst water shortage in 20 years, with a total of 450,000 displaced people between November 2016 and April 2017.

Developed countries: yes, but less

Vietnam, India, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Ethiopia are not the only (nor the worse) examples of the influence of climate on human displacement. In Syria, progressive desertification caused by global warming led to the displacement of 1.5 million people. This became a determining factor for the start of the war:, since the agricultural economy that sustained part of the country collapsed.

Haiti, still recovering from the impact of the hurricane Irma, is another country experiencing climate variability intensified by climate change. More than 12,000 people left their homes looking for shelter due to the severe floods, in a country unable to handle the disaster. Its neighbour, the Dominican Republic, however, was able to return to normality relatively easily in the wake of hurricane Irma.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic illustrate the prevailing trend in the planet: as we can guess, and given the examples discussed, most of the displacements related to climate disasters take place in developing countries, defined by the World Bank as countries with low and medium incomes. Countries with high incomes have been significantly less affected, with 1.8 million people displaced in 2015.

98% of the people that were affected each year by the climate disasters that took place between 2000 and 2004 lived in developing countries

According to the iDMC, this is because low and middle income countries have a relatively low capacity to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or to invest in measures to reduce the risk of disasters that would prevent such displacements or mitigate the impact of future disasters.

Are there any solutions?

According to the UN, in 20 years one billion people will migrate as a result of climate change. This silent truth, almost invisible, needs an urgent solution.

As the economist Gonzalo Delacámara states in an article on climate refugees published in the Huffington Post, 'the issue needs a solution at a global scale and a federal approach that recognises the fundamental rights of these people; it is not climate that makes them refugees, but our failure to provide appropriate governance of natural resources and common property'.

Furthermore, it becomes indispensable to recognise the status of 'climate refugee', a figure not contemplated in the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and only some countries such as Sweden or Finland include 'environmental migrants' among the people with special protection needs. That is, since they are not recognised, they do not have rights as refugees and it is difficult to address their situation.

The result is that, as Delacámara points out, 'natural disasters are essentially disasters that occur when humans fail to address natural phenomena'.


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