The Climate Change – Displacement Nexus

Walter Kälin
Walter Kälin Former Brookings Expert

July 16, 2008

Chairperson, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

One thing is certain: Climate change is happening and one of its visible impacts is the increasing numbers of persons displaced by natural disasters that can be linked to climate change. What is also clear is that we are only partially equipped adequately to deal with this challenge and are required to develop appropriate humanitarian responses both at the normative and the operational levels.

In the course of the past year, more than 400 natural disasters affected over 234 million persons, cost over 16,000 lives, and also displaced millions of people for longer or shorter periods of time. Over the past 20 years the number of recorded disasters has doubled. While part of this increase can be attributed to better reporting, the frequency of climatic hazards has clearly increased significantly. In particular the frequency of flood disasters has tripled over the same time span. While mega-events such as Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Nargis are still the exception, hydrometeorological disasters have, as I learnt on recent visits, already become the norm in countries such as Honduras, Mozambique and Madagascar.

There is a growing consensus between researchers and politicians that the negative impacts of climate change will affect an increasing number of people. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rising sea levels in addition to a higher frequency of storms and floods will impact on tens of millions of people, in particular in coastal areas and on islands. Water availability will be reduced in certain areas, especially the Mediterranean and Middle East, Southern Africa and Latin America, exposing hundreds of millions of people to water stress. Crop yields will be reduced in certain parts of Africa, increasing the likelihood of additional millions of people at risk of hunger. Overall, the areas most affected by climate change will be Africa, the Asian mega deltas and small islands.

Although displacement caused by adverse climate effects is not new, the impact of these predictions is likely to be environmental effects that make it increasingly difficult for people to survive where they are and which will lead to increasing numbers of people leaving their homes, either voluntarily or forcibly. Experience tells us that displacement caused by natural disasters takes just as high a human toll as conflict-induced displacement. More often than not people displaced by natural disasters are in need of live-saving humanitarian assistance. Their personal lives are shattered and their livelihoods destroyed. The most vulnerable among them are particularly at risk. The consequences of natural disasters exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and patterns of discrimination, further marginalize the poor, single women, the elderly, or persons with disabilities or suffering from HIV/AIDS and chronic diseases, and affect the rights of minorities or indigenous peoples. This is why more robust measures are needed to address the humanitarian consequences of displacement in the wake of natural disasters, including those caused by climate change.

We should not be distracted by semantic discussions with little practical meaning about whether to call affected persons “climate change refugees”, “environmental migrants” or something else. Instead, what is needed is a thorough analysis of the different contexts and forms natural disaster induced displacement can take. I propose a distinction between five specific scenarios triggering displacement and migration. This categorization can help to identify the character of displacement and assess whether and to what extent we are equipped to address the protection and assistance needs of those moving from their homes:

  1. The increase of hydro-meteorological disasters (flooding, hurricanes/typhoons /cyclones, mudslides etc) will occur in many regions, but the African and Asian mega deltas as well as certain islands are likely to be most affected. Such disasters can cause large-scale displacement and have huge economic costs, but depending on the effectiveness of recovery efforts the ensuing displacement need not be long-term. Most of the displaced will remain inside their country and as internally displaced persons (IDPs) should receive protection and assistance in accordance with the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. However, there are instances of people affected by such disasters crossing international borders, either because the only escape routes lead them there or because they hope to be better protected or assisted in another country. They do not qualify as refugees entitled to international protection, but neither are they economic migrants. As a consequence, their status remains unclear and despite the applicability of human rights norms they risk ending up in a legal and operational limbo. For the time being, it is highly desirable that host governments allow such persons to stay temporarily for humanitarian reasons until they can safely return back to their homes (as has been the practice in some cases, e.g. for victims of Hurricane Mitch in the USA and persons affected by flooding in different parts of the SADC region). Second, governments and humanitarian agencies in both the country of origin and the receiving country should cooperate closely to address the needs of the displaced.
  2. Disasters will increase the need for governments to designate areas as high-risk zones too dangerous for human habitation. This means that people may have to be (forcibly) evacuated and displaced from their lands and prohibited from returning to them, and relocated to safe areas. This will occur, for example, because of an increased risk of mudslides in mountain regions, andalong rivers and on coastal plains prone to flooding. The difference between this situation and other forms of disaster-induced displacement is that return usually will not be possible. The potential scale of this type of displacement is not yet clear, but affected persons qualify as internally displaced persons as relocation to other countries is unlikely. Their displacement becomes permanent unless durable solutions can be found through sustainable integration at the location they were displaced to (local integration) or relocation to another part of the country allowing them to restart their lives there. This calls for a stronger engagement of early recovery and development agencies, and close cooperation between the affected populations and authorities, as well as between development and humanitarian actors.
  3. Environmental degradation and slow onset disasters (e.g. reduction of water availability, desertification, recurrent flooding, salination of costal zones etc.). With the dramatic decrease of water availability in some regions and recurrent flooding in others, economic opportunities and conditions of life will deteriorate in affected areas. Such deterioration may not necessarily cause forced displacement strictly defined, but instead incite people to move to regions with better income opportunities and living conditions before it becomes impossible to stay at home. However, if areas become uninhabitable because of complete desertification or sinking coastal zones, then population movements would amount to forced displacement and become permanent. This scenario poses several challenges: First, we need criteria to better determine where to draw the line between voluntary movement and forced displacement. Second, those forcibly displaced to other countries remain without any specific protection today as they neither qualify as economic migrants nor refugees in the sense of present international law.
  4. The case of “sinking” small island states caused by rising sea levels constitutes a particular challenge. As a consequence, such areas would become uninhabitable and in extreme cases the remaining territory of affected states could no longer accommodate the whole population or such states would disappear entirely. If and when this occurs, the population would be permanently displaced to other countries. Again, present international law leaves such persons in limbo. They are neither economic migrants nor refugees. It remains to be seen whether they will become stateless persons under international law and even if that is the case, current legal regimes are hardly sufficient to address their very specific needs.
  5. A decrease in essential resources (water; food production) due to climate change may well trigger armed conflict and violence: This is most likely to affect regions that have reduced water availability and that cannot easily adapt (e.g. by switching to economic activities requiring less water) due to poverty. At the normative level, the outcome of this scenario does not raise particular problems: Regardless of the underlying causes of a war, those displaced by armed conflict inside their country are internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the sense of the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, while those fleeing to other countries qualify as refugees or for temporary protection under the pertinent international or regional instruments. At an operational level, however, these conflicts may be particularly challenging: If theresource scarcity underlying conflict cannot be reversed or resolved, it will be extremely difficult to reach peace agreements providing for an equitable solution. The likely outcome is both conflict and the displacement of a protracted nature.

These rather gloomy scenarios should not discourage us: While the negative effects of climate change will become a reality, we can mitigate the impact of disasters by measures aimed both at reducing the effects of a particular hazard as well as reducing the vulnerabilities of those affected, as well as strengthening capacities to respond. In the context of displacement, the following four conclusions and recommendations are of particular importance:

  1. There is a need to recognize at national, regional and international levels that the effects of climate change are likely to trigger temporary or permanent displacement affecting large numbers of people, and to take the necessary actions to respond to this challenge.
  2. Displacement can be reduced by the implementation of disaster risk reduction measures and the promotion of adaptation strategies. Disaster risk reduction should not only become a priority on the political agenda but should also systematically be incorporated into development planning and projects.
  3. Governments are primarily responsible to protect and assist those affected by natural disasters, and should cooperate with international agencies at the country level to build up efficient disaster management structures and capacities effectively to deal with protection and assistance needs during the emergency phase of a disaster as well as with the challenges of early recovery. In this context, it is important to recognize that persons forcibly displaced by the effects of natural disasters have special needs and vulnerabilities, and specifically to address these at the operational level. This calls for a human rights based approach to disaster relief and recovery that places the human being center stage and prioritizes the development of relevant capacities at all levels. The Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters developed by the IASC are a tool to facilitate such an approach.
  4. While existing human rights norms and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide sufficient protection for those forcibly displaced by sudden-onset disasters or because their place of origin has become inhabitable or been declared too dangerous for human habitation, there is a need to clarify or even develop the normative framework applicable to other situations. (a) In the context of slow-onset disasters, criteria are needed to distinguish between those who voluntarily leave their communities because of the effects of climate change and those who are forced to leave their homes and therefore qualify as internally displaced persons. Such criteria should be based on an assessment of whether such persons may be reasonably expected to remain at or go back to their place of residence, taking into account the prevailing circumstances there as well as the particular vulnerabilities of affected persons. (b) People displaced across international borders fall into a normative gap. Here, it is necessary to determine under what circumstances such persons can be regarded as being in need of international protection. Criteria that should be considered include the (im)possibility to return to the country of origin and to receive protection and assistance there, the specific circumstances prevailing at the place of (original) residence, and the specific vulnerabilities of affected persons. (c) The status of people displaced from small islands states sinking due to rising sea levels, needs clarification, even if their number is likely to be small. Although legally these people cannot be considered refugees in light of the current refugee convention, even though international law on statelessness does not provide them with adequate protection, they will be in need of international protection. The rights of these affected populations need to be identified, and clarification is needed about whether they require a unique legal status and about the responsibilities of the international community, particularly in terms of relocation.