Climate change displaced 42.3m people in 2010, figures to grow

Floods in the Philippines, October 2009 (photo: UNHCR)

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The number of people displaced by climate change in general and “sudden onset disasters caused by natural hazard events” in particular is growing steadily and will continue to increase.

Two Geneva organizations taking part in the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century in Oslo, Norway, are making the case that governments will need to be better prepared to cope with internal displacement, which is where most displacement caused by climate factors occurs.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, speaking at the 6-7 June conference, the first international meeting to focus on the issue, called it “the defining challenge of our times”, saying that “there is increasing evidence to suggest that natural disasters are growing in frequency and intensity, and that this is linked to the longer-term process of climate change.”

A report published Monday 6 June by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva, “Displacement due to natural hazard-induced disasters 2009-2010″ provides numbers that back up his remarks.

42.3 million people displaced in 2010

The world saw 36.1 million people displaced in 2008, with the China earthquake alone responsible for 15m, a dip in 2009 to 16.7m and a sharp climb in 2010 to 42.3m.

The report states that “large-scale disasters dominated the global figures and the world’s attention. They caused more than 90 percent of total displacement reported in 2009 and 2010. Over three years from 2008 to 2010, 86 disasters displaced 100,000 or more people, including 18 ‘mega-disasters’ which each displaced from one million people up to over 15 million in the case of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2010 floods in China. These mega-disasters, despite being relatively few, strongly influenced the total global estimate for each year and their impacts accounted, in large part, for differences between the years.”

Pakistan, floods: a young girl collecting water at a camp for displaced persons in Sindh (Photo: ©2010, J Tanner/UNHCR)

UNHCR’s Guterres noted in his speech in Oslo that a number of trends—population growth, urbanization, water, food, and energy insecurity—will “increasingly interact with each other and create the potential for competition and conflict over scarce natural resources.”

He argues that as a result, “we are also likely to see growing numbers of people being displaced from one community, country and continent to another.”


Data on climate change and displacement goes back only to 2008

Data on climate change and displaced persons has only relatively recently been gathered, with IDMC and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) working together in 2009 to gather the first global data, covering 2008. “The focus on new displacement triggered by sudden-onset disasters has been maintained, including both geophysical events – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis – and climate-related events such as floods, storms, extreme temperatures and wildfires. Slow-onset disasters such as drought are not included, nor are disasters caused by biological hazards, such as epidemics.”

Guterres warns that slow onset disasters, such as drought and desertification, lead to “a tipping point at which people’s lives and livelihoods come under such serious threat that they have no choice but to leave their homes.” He predicts that increasingly, “natural disasters will uproot large numbers of people in a matter of hours, forcing them to flee for their lives in conditions that resemble refugee movements.”

Better coordination, new approach needed to deal with climate disaster movements

Both Geneva groups are calling on governments to take a number of steps to deal with a phenomenon that has until recently been little recognized or understood:

  • Guterres says the countries which bear primary responsibility for climate change should establish ‘a massive programme of support to the most seriously affected countries, thereby reinforcing the resilience of their citizens and their ability to adapt to the process of climate change.’ The usual emergency-mode response to natural disasters is not working, he argues: “The billions of dollars spent on relief in recent decades have evidently not led to the sustainable strengthening of national and local capacities.”
  • Guterres warns governments to be aware that many displaced persons who flee across borders to escape climate-related disasters will not qualify for refugee status under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. He is proposing the “development of a global guiding framework for situations of cross-border displacement resulting from climate change and natural disasters. Such a framework should contain arrangements for temporary or interim protection for people who flee natural disasters” with existing treaties possibly being invoked to address the problem.
  • the UN High Commissioner says the plight of citizens of small island states which are threatened by rising sea levels must be addressed:  “The international community has an obligation to support such states and their citizens, not only by means of preventive and mitigating measures, but also through orderly and equitable migration programmes for those at most serious risk and innovative legal frameworks for statehood to preserve national identity.”
  • The IDMC for its part says that its studies should serve as a starting point: they must be built on to enable a fuller understanding
    of the scale and impact of displacement due to different types of natural hazard. Quantitative studies are needed to create “a baseline of information to test and analyze global patterns and trends in displacement over a longer period of time.
  • Data collection should be improved and more information shared “to strengthen monitoring and response to displacement, and to increase global awareness that includes less reported events and regions of the world.
  • Qualitative studies are needed, says the IDMC, to understand “the evolution of displacement situations over time, the specific protection issues and needs of disaster-displaced people, and the barriers to their achievement of durable solutions to
    their displacement.”

Large-scale and mega-scale disaster attract worldwide attention, says the IDMC, but “smaller-scale disasters are far less visible. National and international actors must work towards a greater understanding of the cumulative impacts of frequent, smallscale events on the most vulnerable communities and individuals, and of their coping strategies.”