Climate Migration: an unnamed disaster

On 14 March 2019, Cyclone Idai devastated 90 percent of the city of Beira in Mozambique. The major humanitarian crisis that ensued has affected anywhere between 1.85 and 3 million people and displaced approximately 146,000 people within Mozambique’s territory, as citizens sought to escape the floods and fled homes that were reduced to debris. As the consequences of climate change accelerate, the pressing issue of climate migration calls for urgent intervention. 

It is estimated that the largest number of people displaced by climate change related disasters is in Bangladesh, where 23.5 million people of a population of 163 million were displaced in 2016 alone. They were forced to migrate for several reasons, including river erosion, flooding, a cyclone, salt-water intrusion destruction of crops, and drinking water contamination. Bangladesh’s geographical situation, high density population (ranked tenth largest in the world), and low quality of consolidated infrastructure puts it at high risk of such phenomena. On the coastline, the sea level rises by 21 millimeters yearly, as opposed to the 3 millimetres global average for rising sea levels. The country is crossed by approximately four hundred rivers, and the resulting displacement leads to overpopulation in the capital city of Dhaka, as people seek shelter and job opportunities. Two thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) arrive in Dhaka every day, which increases to over four thousand during the rainy season. There is not enough infrastructure in Dhaka to provide for the 20 million inhabitants. Today, thousands of climate migrants live in the ‘Bola slum’ alone, and an estimated 35 percent of Dhaka’s inhabitants live in slums, where clean water and food are scarce resources. 

While climate change impacts sea levels, it also fuels desertification in the world’s driest regions. Reporting on the impact of climate change on global migration, the US Government Accountability Office has found that the 25 percent decrease in precipitation in the last thirty years has forced Nigerians to flee from the north to the south, as well as to neighbouring states such as Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Coupled with the on-going security challenge that Boko Haram represents in the region, desertification destabilizes the country, as insufficient soil moisture destroys the possibility of agriculture.

There is no official definition today for “climate refugee”, as the term is not recognized by international legislation. The term “climate migrant” proves to be more accurate, as populations are more often displaced internally within a country’s borders before crossing to different states. While the human right to a high quality of life is outlined by the UN, the one for a specific liveable and healthy environment is not. The main affected regions around the world, the ones that are most prone to climate change-related displacement, are Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. These regions, faced with insufficient resources and a deficient institutional structure to rely upon, are left on their own to solve an issue that could affect 143 million people globally by 2050

Measures are being undertaken in certain regions to reduce the impact of climate change on population displacement. The Kampala Convention, introduced by the African Union in 2009, legally binds states to provide ‘protection and assistance of internally displaced persons in Africa’, and is the first convention of its kind. As of May 2019, it has been ratified by 27 of the 55 member states of the African Union. The Kampala Convention introduces significant measures for the protection of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). These include registration of IDPs, protection of property rights (aiming to provide compensation for lost, destroyed, and damaged property), allowing IDPs to participate in formal decision-making through consultation, and focusing on unifying separated families, including tracking down those members who are lost. 

However, while the Kampala Convention is a major step forward at regional level, its scope remains limited as states continue to work unilaterally and regulation often fails to be enforced because of corruption and weak public institutions. There is a major need to expand such measures globally, as regions are becoming increasingly destabilized by the flow of people. According to former French Minister for Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, climate-related catastrophes account for twice as much migration as do conflicts. Weak institutions fail to protect climate migrants and do not provide appropriate legal structures for infrastructure consolidation (prevention) and restitution of housing (protection and compensation). As developed countries struggle to reach the CO2 emissions target of the Paris Agreement and as climate skepticism continues to rise, there is an urgent need for an international institutional framework to be provided for migrants that have been displaced due to climate change related catastrophes.  


 Irina Tabacaru

 Irina Tabacaru is the Researcher for the Energy and Environment policy centre.


The featured image (top) in which ‘Villagers wait for food aid to be distributed while the village authorities stack Corn Soy Blend (CSB) in a building in Nhagau, Mozambique’ is by USAFRICOM and is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


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