Thanks to climate change, environmental refugees on the rise


The Red Cross has identified that 25 million refugees (58 per cent of global total) owe their displacement to climate change. Reports are coming in from all corners of the world that this figure will escalate further and by the year 2050 there will be over 200 million environmental refugees as a direct result of sea rise, soil erosion and other factors. Among other things, this will lead to new conflicts as governments and relief agencies will struggle to manage these disposed population.

While several new crisis and conflict zones will emerge and in quite unprecedented ways, the coastal areas — which are as such vulnerable to disasters like cyclones and storms which are visible and sudden disasters and where the impact comes without a notice — are emerging as the most vulnerable areas. A latest report of the World Bank confirms that the impact of sea level rise from global warming could be catastrophic for many developing countries and that even a one meter sea rise would make as much as 56 million people in these countries environmental refugees.

The GDP loss to the coastal countries will be huge. Incidence of natural disasters has almost trebled from 1,110 during the 1970s to 2,935 between 1993 and 2002.

During the same period the numbers of people affected by storms and floods rocketed from 740 million people to 2.5 billion. The cost of the damage has increased five-fold to $655bn.

India’s recently formulated National Climate Change Action Plan, refering to a study conducted by Unnikrishnan and Shankar that analysed 40 years of coastal tide gauge records, says that India is facing a sea level rise between 1.06 mm to 1.75 mm per year. The NATCOM report had previously mentioned that the mean sea level along the Indian coast shows a long term rising trend of about 1.0 mm/year. The IPCC’s fourth assessment report however mentions that sea level rise along the Asia coast which was 1.7 to 2.4 mm/year over the 20th century as a whole has risen 3.1 mm/yr over the past decade.

All this naturally induces new forms of refugees and conflicts.  The impacts are showing up in states like Gujarat, West Bengal and Orissa already. The Sunderban islands are vanishing fast and several patches of the 480 kilometre long Orissa coast are facing severe beach erosion.  So much so that, the Orissa government has finally woken up to prepare a more than hundred crore project to check the erosion.

End of an occupation

While the people of the Satabhaya region, which has shrunk from seven villages to two villages just in a few years, are fighting for proper relocation; the opening of a new mouth in Chilika — Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon — has posed a unique form of threat which has caught both the people and the government unawares. The mouth that has been forced to open due to sea rise is changing the hydrological character of the lake and thousands of fisherfolks of the lake are going to face a complete shutdown of their occupation.

The Satabhaya villagers, which are now only reduced to some hundreds, have been promised of relocation about a kilometre away from the sea.  The task to rehabilitate the Chilika fisherfolks is however huge.  

This year, on the eve of the World Refugees Day, Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said that climate change could uproot people by provoking conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, such as water. In an interview with the Guardian, Guterres said: “Climate change is today one of the main drivers of forced displacement, both directly through impact on environment — not allowing people to live any more in the areas where they were traditionally living — and as a trigger of extreme poverty and conflict”.

What the UNHCR found difficult to manage was the issue of Internally Displaced Person, according to a report that it released on that day. Guterres said during the release, “the task is hindered by the legal distinction between refugees, who flee across borders and automatically become the UNHCR’s responsibility, and internally displaced persons (IDPs), who flee their homes but remain in their home countries. In 2007 there were estimated to be 26 million of them, and only half receive direct or indirect help from the UNHCR. “They remain under the protection of their own governments, but the governments are sometimes part of the problem rather than solution.”

The people of Satabhaya and Chilika are new entrants into the IDP list and hence pose a new type of challenge to the policy makers who are yet to consider climate change as the real issue and consider this in a ‘resettlement’ angle. Climate scientists worry sea rise is going to be more than three times than the currently predicted level. Anders Carlson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds even the IPCC predictions conservative and suspect that by the end of the century, sea levels may be rising three times as fast as they are at present. Time Orissa like states realised this.

(The writer is convenor of Water Initiatives Orissa and Combat Climate Change Network)

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