Population Displacement: A Major Challenge Posed by Climate Change

In a panel discussion on future global trends hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Alice Thomas from Refugees International talked about the link between climate change, natural disasters and human displacement. She argued that climate change is undermining the security and livelihoods of those affected, and recommended strategies to tackle the humanitarian and displacement challenges.

Forced migration

In the past decade, extreme environmental events have occurred with greater frequency and have affected millions of people around the globe, forcing them to leave their homes and seek new ways to sustain a living. Forced migration, usually triggered by natural catastrophes (primarily floods and storms) or regional conflicts, is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the international community today. Over the past three decades, the number of humans displaced by weather-incited disasters or conflicts has risen by 250%. Every year, 23 million more people are newly displaced by sudden onset natural hazards. In 2011, the Horn of Africa experienced one of the most severe drought in its history, leading to a food security crisis and the displacement of one million people in Somalia. In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan swept through the central Philippines and displaced four million people.

Reasons for population displacement

The reasons for population displacement are becoming increasingly complex but environmental degradation and climate change are the most common causes. Over the past two decades, the number of climate-related disasters has doubled. Today, nine out of 10 disasters are climate-related. More than that, ongoing environmental degradation is usually accompanied by other life-threatening factors such as food insecurity, water shortages, malnutrition and serious public health emergencies. Such challenges make it extremely hard for migrants to return to their homes and recover their livelihoods. Compounding the environmental challenges are political instability and economic distress, rendering countries even more vulnerable to catastrophic events. The displaced people in those fragile contexts, especially women and young children, are also more likely to fall prey to crimes of human trafficking, child labor, organ trade, etc.

Relocation of displaced populations

In the face of a natural disaster, relocating affected populations is the first key step of any recovery effort. As pointed out by Thomas, resettlement is a complex, time-intensive, and risking undertaking. Suitable and sustainable resettlement options should not only provide affected communities with sufficient shelter and access to services but also allow them to maintain livelihoods. Without adequate planning, government resettlement strategies may often threaten to prolong displacement and leave the affected community even more vulnerable to future disasters. Right after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, there was a hasty effort from the national government to move people out of harm’s way. However, due to the lack of a well-planned and inclusive resettlement program, those efforts created even more vulnerability and further undermined the rights of those displaced.

Preparing vulnerable areas

In her speech, Thomas also recommended several long-term strategies for building and strengthening resilience in areas that are most vulnerable to mega-disasters. The first is addressing climate risk in fragile and conflict-ridden states and channeling adaptation funding to develop adequate response programs. Another strategy is to pool resources across sectors and promote public private partnerships. Although today over 80% of overseas development assistance fund goes into fragile states, there are very few examples as to how adaptation programs or funding are channeling money to build resilience to reduce climate risk. Cases like Haiyan show us how important it is to raise sufficient funding for disaster prevention programs in vulnerable areas and gather efforts across all fronts to address the complex post-disaster challenges.