22 October 2003

South Africa: An Unnatural Disaster

The number of people seeking refuge as a result of environmental disaster is set to increase dramatically over the coming years. Ironically, given current attitudes, industrialised countries will resist accommodating them, and yet they will have become refugees as a direct result of the way the West lives.

Global warming - more than war or political upheaval - stands to displace millions. And climate change is being driven by fossil fuel-intensive lifestyles.

Though they have no official status, environmental refugees are already with us. They are people who have been forced to flee their homes because of factors such as extreme weather, drought and desertification. There are already more of them than their "political" counterparts - 25-million, according to the last estimate, compared to about 22-million conventional refugees at their highest point in the late 1990s.

By 2050, mostly due to the likely effects of global warming, there could be more than 150-million.

In 2001 170-million people were affected by disasters, 97% of which were climate-related. In the previous decade more than 100-million suffered drought and famine in Africa, a figure likely to increase with global warming.

According to one study, at least five small island states are at risk of ceasing to exist. Sea-level rise could devastate the Maldives. Without real international legal protection, their people could become resented minorities in Sri Lanka, itself threatened, or India, which has its own problems.

On the small South Pacific island of Tuvalu, people already have an ad hoc agreement with New Zealand to allow phased relocation.

Up to 10-million could be displaced in the Philippines, millions more in Cambodia, Thailand, Egypt, China - the list goes on.

The effects of these population movements are likely to be highly destabilising globally unless they are carefully managed. But in spite of the scale of the problem, no one in the international community, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has taken control of the problem.

The UNHCR says that, institutionally, it is too poor and that environmental refugees should be dealt with at the national level. It's true that most parts of the UN system are underfunded.

Ironically this, like global warming, is mostly the fault of wealthy industrialised countries for either not raising or meeting their contributions.

But without action, the countries least responsible for creating the problem stand to carry the largest share of costs associated with environmental refugees. Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries, expects to have about 20-million people displaced.

Creating new legal obligations to accept environmental refugees would help ensure that industrialised countries accept the consequences of their choices.

Refugees are defined as people forced to flee across an international border because of a well-founded fear of persecution, or fear for their lives and freedom due to, among other things, membership of a particular group.

In terms of well-founded fears, drowning, homelessness or starvation would seem to fit the bill. In terms of membership of a particular group, any community or indigenous group similarly prone would also fit. Without proper environmental refugee status, the displaced could be condemned to a national economic and geographical lottery, and to the patchwork availability of resources and application of immigration policies.

There is an acceptance that current national policies would not be capable of handling the scale of the problem.

Environmental refugees need to be recognised and the problem managed before it manages us.

Andrew Simms is policy director at the New Economics Foundation

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