Since 2008, an estimated one person has been displaced by a disaster every second, with an average of 26.4 million people displaced each year by climate or weather-related events[i]. 17.5 million people were displaced by weather-related disasters in 2014 alone. According to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organisation for Migration, by 2050, the world will have to deal with a projected number of climate refugees between 50 million and 200 million people, mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen. While these figures suggest future actions, many countries are just experiencing human mobility issues right now.
For example, the 2011 and 2012 droughts in East Africa, and the floods in Pakistan between 2010 and 2012 left millions without shelter, potable water, and basic supplies. Almost one-third of Somalia's population left their homes due to the droughts by September 2011, and more than 1,500 refugees continued to arrive every day from southern Somalia, 80 per cent of whom were women and children[ii]. In addition, scientists argue that Syrian refugees are as much fleeing a war as they are escaping severe droughts that have destroyed their crops and killed their livestock[iii].
Small Island Developing States – or SIDS – are also suffering the consequences of rising sea levels at a staggering human, political, and financial cost. For instance, in 2014, Kiribati’s government had to buy about 8 square miles of land in Fiji, as part of its relocation policies for its people. The government is helping migrants with their relocation and the building new communities in other countries. People in the Marshall Islands are harnessing the migration agreement between them and the United States. They are moving to Arkansas, as they have little resources to build infrastructure that will protect them from rising tides[iv].
Many people in the United States think of climate change as an abstract concept but its impacts are closer than they can imagine and taxpayers are already bearing the cost of such effects. The US Federal government launched an unprecedented programme, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The department is granting a first of its kind 'climate resilience' grant of US$1 billion (± £650million) in 13 states, to help communities adapt to climate change by building stronger levees, dams and drainage systems, and in extreme cases, to relocate the community.
In Louisiana, the Native American residents of the Isle de Jean Charles are witnessing how their homes vanish underwater. Since 1955, more than 90% of the island’s original land mass has washed away. Channels cut by loggers and oil companies eroded the land, and decades of flood control efforts have kept the rivers from replenishing wetlands’ sediments, let alone the hurricanes, like Katrina or Ivan, that have struck the region with severe consequences. It will cost US$48m to move the entire community at the Isle de Jean Charles away from their flooded territories. Another example is the Alaskan Inuit village of Shishmaref, whose cost to resettle is estimated at US$180m. The south of Florida, especially Miami, is another candidate for the scheme as the National Climate Assessment named this city as one of those most vulnerable to severe damage as a result of rising sea levels. However, this issue is far more complicated to implement as the people do not want to relocate.
In 2002, the US government tried to carry out a plan to move about 60 people of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe that live on the Isle, but it faced logistical and political complications. People in the village think that moving out means losing part of their identity, their heritage and their culture. On the other hand, there have been some tribal disputes, let alone the displayed mistrust of the government. This problem cannot be solved by writing a cheque and moving out. This shows that large-scale relocation plans are far more complicated than just moving a church or an airport to higher lands.
Currently, there is no specific legal protection for people displaced by climate-related disasters. The existing national, regional and international legal regimes only respond to some of the protection concerns arising from displacement in the context of disasters. To try to answer to this problem, the governments of Switzerland and Norway launched in 2012 the Nansen Initiative. Under the premise that people forced by disasters might flee across international borders, the initiative is trying to build consensus on how those people will be admitted and receive assistance, and find durable solutions to their displacement. There are not only legal protection problems but also operational, institutional and funding challenges since no international organisation has a clear mandate for such people[v].
Although the initiative will give a clear indication of the following steps, for as long as there are no specific directives and financial commitments to and from governments, as well as international organisations, including the UN, the lives of hundreds of thousands will continue to be at risk. Climate change impacts are coming faster than predicted as the rate and extent of changes outstrip projections. Seas are now expected to rise by feet rather than inches by the end of this century, but the political will and the economic resources to build more resilient communities are yet to come. The work is just beginning and it becomes essential to engage governments, humanitarian organisations and the international community in solutions that provide a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change-related displacement.
- Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2015), Global Estimates2015: People displaced by disasters, Geneva, pp 8.[
- United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2011), Somalia: Famine & Drought. Situation Report No. 7. Available online at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/OCHA%20Somalia%20Situation%20Report%20 No.%207%2008%20August%202011.pdf (Accessed on 26th June 2016)
- Wendle, J. (2015), The Ominous Story of Syria's Climate Refugees, Scientific American, Available online at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ominous-story-of-syria-climate-refugees/ (Accessed on 26th June 2016)
- Campbell-Dollaghan, K. (2015), How Three Countries Being Engulfed By The Ocean May Relocate To Survive, Gizmodo, Available online at: http://gizmodo.com/how-three-countries-being-engulfed-bythe-ocean-may-rel-1745733837 (Accessed on 26th June 2016)
- Kälin, W. (2015), The Nansen Initiative: building consensus on displacement in disaster contexts, Forced Migration Review issue 49, Oxford, pp 5-7.