Much of the information on this page was taken from Environmental Exodus (Norman Myers; Climate Institute, 1995).
The Climate Institute defines environmental refugees as "people fleeing from environmental crises, whether natural or anthropogenic events, and whether short or long term." An inability to gain a livelihood due to environmental degradation, natural disasters, or development projects obligates environmental refugees to migrate from their homelands. Reasons for displacement include land degradation, drought, deforestation, natural disasters, and other environmental changes that interact destructively with poverty and population pressure. There are currently between 25-30 million environmental refugees worldwide, and their numbers are expected to swell to 200 million by mid-century, largely as a result of climate change. Unlike traditional refugees, environmental refugees are not recognized by the Geneva Convention or the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), and therefore do not have the same legal standing in the international community.
Today, the greatest numbers of environmental refugees are living in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, China, Mexico, and Central America. The complexity of environmental push and pulls, plus a lack of adequate recent study, makes an accurate count of environmental refugees difficult. The most recent comprehensive study, published in 1995 by the Climate Institute, identified 25 million environmental refugees worldwide. The report's author, Norman Myers, has since raised that figure to between 25 and 30 million. Of the 25 million in 1995, there were approximately 5 million refugees fleeing drought in Africa's Sahel (the band of semi-arid grasslands and savanna stretching between Senegal and Ethiopia); 4 million environmental refugees in the Horn of Africa; at least seven million in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa suffering from famine; a minimum of 6 million environmental refugees in China due to land-shortage (out of 120 million internally displaced people in the country); and at least 2 million Mexicans escaping environmental degradation. There were approximately 50 million people in China and India who had been uprooted by public works projects, one million of whom had still not been resettled. Other large populations of environmental refugees existed in El Salvador and Kenya.
More disturbingly, the report indicated a much greater number of people facing adverse environmental conditions, poverty, and population pressure, who were in danger of becoming environmental refugees. These included 150 million people in sub-Saharan Africa facing food deficits or famine, 135 million people adversely affected by severe desertification, 550 million people facing water shortage, a quarter billion farmers forced onto marginal hillside tracts, and untold hundreds of millions of farmers who had abandoned traditional farmlands for tropical forest areas.
The term "environmental refugee" encompasses any person uprooted from his or her home by long-term environmental degradation, short-term incidents, or development projects. Long-term factors can interact to render continued agricultural sustenance difficult or impossible. Causes of land-degradation include salinization (poisoning of fertile land through salt-water intrusion), water logging, soil erosion, and loss of nutrients and biodiversity. One of the most serious forms of land-gradation is known as "desertification," which occurs in dry-land eco-systems as a result of climatic variation (especially drought) and unsustainable human practices: over-cultivation, overgrazing, and/or deforestation. Severe desertification was affecting 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa in 1995. The world has been losing 60,000 square kilometers of productive cropland each year to desertification processes and 1% of all irrigated lands to water logging and salinization, according to Myers. Water shortage caused by water-pollution, drought, and fresh-water depletion contribute to desertification and crop-yield decline. These processes drive farmers off of traditional lands and create additional pressure on remaining croplands. Those who stay may face famine.
Short-term phenomena that can cause environmental displacement include natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. The International Federation of the Red Cross estimates that since 1996, the average number of people affected annually by natural disasters has totaled about 210 million. The Asian Tsunami of 2004 displaced 2 million people, many of them remain in refugee camps; Hurricane Katrina in 2005 displaced 1.5 million, 330,000 of whom are expected never to return to their homes. Victims of environmental accidents, such as the Chernobyl nuclear-reactor catastrophe and the Bhopal chemical spill, are also considered environmental refugees, along with the 10 million people each year whose homes are disturbed by development. Projects such as dams, irrigation canals, and urban construction force vast populations to resettle. Dam projects in India have displaced the largest number of people, an estimated 33 million.
Poverty, disease, famine, and population pressures compound existing environmental problems. Poor and vulnerable people, dependent on agriculture or natural resources for survival, often inhabit marginal tracts on hillsides or already-degraded land, and the pressure to feed a stable or growing population further compromises already-degraded land. In the Himalayas, displaced farmers resort to unsustainable slash-and-burn agriculture practices, but the loss of forest-cover exacerbates drought and hurts crop-yield. Water pollution and water shortage can also be detrimental, as lack of clean water is associated with 90% of diseases in the developing world. Moreover, victims of environmental degradation or other displacements often relocate to hazardous urban settlements that are highly vulnerable to natural disasters.
Many, if not most, long-term and short-term environmental issues are intensified by human-induced climate change. The number and scale of natural disasters have increased markedly in recent decades. Consequences of climate change such as hotter temperatures in some areas, droughts, other climate anomalies, and sea-level rise contribute to famine interacting with various causes of long-term land-degradation.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNCHR) defines refugees as victims of persecution, war, or civil conflict who have fled their home countries. Refugee status entitles a person to a safe asylum in another country-or in the absence of this possibility, the provision of assistance and aid "such as as financial grants, food, tools and shelter, schools and clinics." The UNHCR has more recently recognized internally displaced people (IDPs): people uprooted for political or social reasons similar to refugees but who remain in their own countries. IDPs do not fall under the commission's mandate, but can still receive protection and/or assistance.
Neither the Geneva Convention nor the UNHCR regard environmental displacement as a determinant of refugee-status. The UNCHR itself has argued that unlike traditional refugees or IDPs, individuals displaced by environmental factors can appeal to their home governments for help and do not, therefore, fall under the jurisdiction of the international community. Recognition of environmental refugees would, moreover, obligate the UNCHR to stretch its already limited budget of $1 billion a year to more than twice as many people currently under its mandate. Some fear that an expanded definition would inundate the international community with refugees, impairing aid and response efforts, and overwhelming asylum countries that are already attempting to limit migration.
The difficulty of defining what constitutes an environmental refugee creates an additional obstacle to international recognition. UNHCR makes a careful distinction between refugees and economic migrants, defining the latter as those who leave their countries for greater economic opportunity but could return home without threat of persecution. Donor governments fear an onslaught of asylum-seekers if refugee status is extended to include "pure" economic migrants. Environmental factors are intimately entangled with economic factors, however; for those whom Myers has labeled as environmental refugees, the favorable economic opportunities sought in migrating are favorable only in comparison to an indisputably unlivable situation. In Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition, Andrew Simms and Molly Conisbee argue that many people in environmental flight cannot in reality seek protection from their home governments. A huge portion of the world's environmental refugees lives in weak or failed states that do not have the resources to resettle or assist those in need. Some states may be hostile or even at the root of development-induced displacement.
It should be noted that the UN Environment Programme has recognized the existence of environmental refugees and has played an important role in bringing the issue to the world's attention. Although the term environmental refugees has begun to enter the international lexicon, as this Section indicates no consensus has been achieved on addressing what Norman Myers characterized in 1995 as "an emergent crisis in the global arena."
Human-induced climate change threatens to create an unmanageable environmental refugee crisis during this century. Climate change will lead to an increase in desertification, droughts, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events that will have dire and even unexpected impacts on human populations. Most in danger are people in the developing world--in particular, those residing in low-lying developing states, on small islands, and across North Africa--who have the least ability to adapt to climatic variability. Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute warns that four types of geographies will share the largest burden of climate change crises. These are: low-lying coastal settlements, farm regions dependent on river water from glacier and snow melt, sub-humid and arid regions that suffer from drought, and regions of Southeast Asia facing chances in monsoon patterns.
Many projected climate change risks are directly related to water-security. Droughts and disappearance of glaciers will lead to water-shortage that will have especially devastating impacts in lower latitudes, where increased temperatures will rapidly deplete soil moisture. Low lying-countries experiencing flooding from sea-level rise are also likely to experience poisoning of cropland and drinking-water from salt-water intrusion. Myers estimates that the number of water-short people by 2025 will be between 2.8 billion and 3.3 billion. Lester Brown predicts that 3 billion new people will be added to the world's population by 2050; most "will be living in countries where water tables are already falling."
Desertification that is the primary factor causing many of the world's environmental refugees can be expected to intensify as a result of water shortage and increased population stress. A third of the world's population currently resides in areas threatened by desertification. In North Africa in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, desertification renders over 1000 square kilometers unfit for cultivation. Soil erosion has claimed 160,000 square km of Turkey's farmlands. Flooding and salinization from sea-level rise menace low-lying coastal areas that contain 10 percent of the world's population. Ocean temperature rise depletes coastal fisheries through coral bleaching and acidification associated with rising carbon dioxide levels is likely to add to this stress. Myers projects that sea level rise will directly affect 26 million people in Bangladesh, 12 million in 12 million in Egypt, 73 million in China, 20 million in India, and 31 million elsewhere. Many small islands, including Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands will face serious inundation, and even submersion, by mid-century.
Extreme weather phenomena such as intensified cyclones, storms, heat waves and variation in El Nino patterns will continue to afflict large populations. The number of people suffering from natural disasters has tripled to 2 billion people over the last decade. The monsoon system, which is responsible for 70% of the rain falling on the Indian sub-continent, may change tremendously with unpredictable results--likely, increased drought during certain times and flooding at others. In July 2007, an unusually heavy monsoon season plagued the Indian sub-continent, affecting and displacing millions of people. Because of its low-lying delta position, Bangladesh has suffered dramatically and will continue to be one of the countries hit hardest by climate change. Flooding in July affected more than half of Bangladesh's districts and over a million families. The country endured double its average rainfall for the month, combined with rivers over-flowing with northern India's rain-water carried downstream.
It is important to view each of these problems in the context of rapid population growth over the next century. Norman Myers estimates that by 2050, as many as roughly 160 million people will be put at risk by sea level rise due to climate change. Another 50 million will be environmental refugees because of drought and other climate variations.
Many scholars and activists working on this issue are pushing for international legal recognition of environmental refugees. Molly Conisbee and Andrew Simms, two British writers who have written extensively on environmental issues, argue for UN recognition either in the Geneva Convention or a new international convention that gives "internationally assured protection, independent of, and separate from, the actions of their own governments." Recognition would be followed by the formation of a UN commission that would report directly to the Security Council. Nations that have historically been big polluters should acknowledge their "ecological debt" and shoulder responsibility to developing nations who will suffer the consequences. Janos Bogardi of the United Nations University has also pressed for UN recognition, but stresses that a separate convention or treaty is needed to avoid diluting protection for traditional refugees. These measures should make international provisions for environmental migrants. In addition, the Center for American Progress has pressed Congress to address future climate refugees in current immigration legislation.
To limit greenhouse gas concentrations driving climate change nations around the world will need to reduce their greenhouse emissions dramatically, increase efforts to foster greenhouse benign energy, and invest in sustainable development. Stating that there is now widespread consensus about the gravity of climate change, Conisbee and Simms contend that countries that fail to reduce their climate change contributions are "exhibiting intentional behavior." In international legal terms, this should constitute "environmental persecution," they argue.
Myers warns that to address the growing refugee problem, scientists and policymakers will need to consider the root cause of environmental problems on a local level. He advocates $22 billion--about half the cost of desertification losses each year, he estimates--to be used towards a global UN anti-desertification initiative. Restoration of tree cover represents one practical step to fighting desertification, as exemplified by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Trees provide shelter belts, help maintain soil moisture, and defend against soil moisture.
It is likely that the research and policy focus on the environmental refugee issue will grow if the numbers of such individuals continue to mount as Norman Myers projected in his path breaking study undertaken for the Climate Institute and published in 1995. When that study was initiated in 1992 the term was barely in use. Now it is widely employed by policymakers and the news media, although there is still no universal agreement on a definition. With climate change, sea level rise, population pressures, and land degradation all creating stresses on human habitat it seems likely that this challenge will be a mounting concern of national and international policy makers, of the often desperate people uprooted by these stresses, and of the communities to which they flee. This Section of www.climate.org will try to provide an ongoing focus on the unfolding efforts to grapple with this challenge.
By Sarah Reed, August 2007
See also: Policy Responses to Climate Refugees: What Are Governments Doing? by Max Jerneck, March 2009
Brown, Lester R. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, 2006.
Conisbee, Molly and Andrew Simms. Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition. New Economics Foundation, 2003.
Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere: In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement (May 2009)
DiLorenzo, Sarah. "Climate Change Is Creating New Refugees Who Deserve U.N. Protection, Says U.N. Professor." Associated Press, May 17 2007.
Friends of the Earth. "A Citizen's Guide to Climate Refugees."
IPCC Working Group II Report, Summary for Policymakers: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007)
Keane, David: The Environmental Causes and Consequences of Migration: A Search for the Meaning of "Environmental Refugees" (Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, 2004)
Manik, Julfikar Ali and Somini Sengupta. "South Asia Grapples with Results of Flooding." The New York Times, August 4 2007.
Marks, Kathy : S.O.S.: Pacific islanders battle to save what is left of their country from rising seas (The Independent, 2007)
Myers, Norman. Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena. [PDF] Climate Institute, 1995.
Myers, Norman: Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue (2005)
Norwegian Refugee Council: Future Floods of Refugees: A Comment on Climate Change, Conflict and Forced Migration (Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008).
Sachs, Jeffrey: Climate Change Refugees. (Scientific American, 2007)
Simms: Unnatural Disasters, Special Report (The Guardian, 2003)
Stern, Nicholas: The Economics of Climate Change (2006)
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