Stuck Here on Earth
Adnan Sirajee casts a critical eye over the issue of climate refugees
Currently, humankind is set in motion to create history, and what is history, indeed, but a record of change? The guided principle behind this history is none other than climate change. The world today is a much warmer place than it used to be in the last century and this rate of warming is unprecedented, even going back millions of years. The sea levels are rising, even small changes in the sea level have large effects; for example: a one meter rise in the sea level will claim 15-20% land from the southern parts of Bangladesh, Maldives will go under and other small island states, coastal communities and low-lying areas of the world will fall to a similar fate.
As Joseph Stiglitiz rightly assumes that the world is engaged in a grand experiment, studying what happens when you release carbon dioxide and certain other gases into the atmosphere in larger and larger amounts. The scientific community is fairly certain about the outcome and it is not pretty. If we had access to other planets, it might make sense to conduct such an experiment, so that if things turn out badly as indicated by the scientific community, we would simply move to the next one. Unfortunately we are stuck here on Earth, with only one planet, one hope and therefore we cannot afford to engage in such risky experiments.
What the future will bring, we cannot say, but even the present has brought us considerable warning signals sufficient to drive us towards a new direction in thinking. Had it been the case, the climate change dialogues around the globe would have underpinned the greatest single impact of climate change migration. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Suffice to say policy makers and planners of the world have successfully failed to put a human face on a topic.
The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR1) in 1990 noted that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration. The report estimated that by 2050, 150 million people could be displaced by climate change related phenomenon like desertification, increasing water scarcity, floods and storm etc. More recent studies on the impact of climate change estimates even more people to be displaced in the same period; for instance, Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University argued that when global warming takes hold there could be as many as 200 million people displaced by 2050 by the disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea level rise and coastal flooding. Again, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006 and a Christian Aid report in 2007, estimates displacement of respectively 200 million and 250 million people by climate change related phenomena. Thus, the number of future climate migration shows a terrifying figure, a tenfold increase on today's entire population of documented refugees and internally displaced persons (IPDs). It would mean that by 2050 one in every 45 people in the world would have been displaced by climate change.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP
An identity crisis
Climate change and population displacement nexus is relatively a new concept. It is only in the last 20 years or so that the international community has slowly begun to recognise the wider linkages and implications that a changing climate and environment has on human mobility. However, the notion was conceptualised in climate change chapters only recently. Despite the global manifestation of the climate change and population displacement nexus, the terms and concepts referring to climate change -- affected population are found dissimilar throughout the literature. Ecological and environmental refugees, climate refugees, climate change migrants and environmentally-induced forced migrants are a few of the terms commonly used.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) termed these future migrants as "environmental refugees." On the contrary, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM have advised that the terms like 'Climate Refugees' or Environmental Refugees' have no legal basis in international refugee law and should be avoided in order not to undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees. Attempts were also made to treat climate change induced forced migrants as "environmentally displaced persons" which is in line with the mandate of the UNHCR's Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) wherein international communities were made less responsible to mitigate the crisis.
"Climate related forced displaced persons," "Political refugees" or the IDPs for that matter are very different from one and other in terms of source and impact. It is not fair if inhabitants of some atolls in the Maldives and inhabitants of the coastal areas of Bangladesh receive similar treatment as the political refugees, which are narrowly defined under the 1951 Geneva Convention. As of today there is exists no legal definition for climate induced forced displacement and thus the climate-environmental induced forced migrants still lack an identity in the policy discourse around the world.
Where are the climate migrants?
As a policy maker in Bangladesh, the fundamental question one should ask whether or not Bangladesh is prepared to host such large scale migration? Today, Bangladesh is country of 160 million, projected to reach 220 million by the year 2050. What will happen to the already high population density? Do we have adequate infrastructure and municipal services to accommodate such numbers of internal migrants? More importantly, what will become of the livelihoods of tens and millions who are likely to lose everything including the very land that they call home? Needless to say these questions pose very little importance in today's policy discourse.
By the year 2050, one in every 45 people in the world and one in every 7 people in Bangladesh would be displaced by climate change. While the consequences of rising sea levels remain at long shot for most parts of the world, the symptoms of such future events are frequently felt in Bangladesh. The situation is more pronounced in the newly emerged lands and fragmented spots of islands that mushroom on the outskirts of the coastal belt and major river networks.
The local people are already feeling the heat of climate change. Once a 250 square kilometer island, Kutubdia has been reduced to just 37 square kilometers within a century and more than half of the population has been forced to leave and resettle in nearby urban zones.
World Bank estimates that half of all Bangladeshis will live in urban centers within that timeframe. With an annual growth rate of 4.10%, Dhaka has already claimed a space amongst the top 20 mega cities. The city now has one of the highest growth rates after Delhi and Karachi. The current growth rate of urban population is 4.8% per year. Major metropolitans have observed populations expanding from 1.6 million in 1974 to 20.15 million in 1991. In 2001, this soared to 23.1 million which by 2006 had gone up to 35 million. Urban population may reach about 68 million, or 37% of the total population, by 2015. Urbanisation episodes in Bangladesh have been rapid and unplanned and events like floods and droughts in many parts of the country are also driving many to change their location and occupation, which further contributes towards the rapid growth of urban population.
As the world prepares to adapt with climate change, much of Bangladesh's coastal population have already become what we now know as environment or climate migrants. In her article on climate migrants, Lisa Friedman, a reporter from E&E depicts the story of Gaurpodomando who comes from a fisherman's family. As their catch declined year after year, all men from Gaurpodomando's family left one by one for India to secure a better life. Between the disappearing fish, blackened flood water and half inundated rice fields from cyclone Sidr, life for the locals became almost unbearable.
Rasheda Begum, another climate induced forced migrant from the coastal island of Kutubdia vividly explains how her family attempted to cope with climate change as the sea water claimed their home over and over again. Distressed, they finally relocated to an urban slum called 'Kutubdia Para' situated at the outskirts of the sea resort town of Cox's Bazar. However, her struggle did not come an end even after relocating as both employment and social security was scarce for slum dwellers.
Amongst the many faces of climate induced migration, such as Rasheda's, the migration of around 20, 000 people from a South Eastern coastal island of Kutubdia to Cox's Bazar is a compelling one that tells us climate induced migration is real and already happening.
These stories nonetheless show two distinctive features of climate induced migration. Firstly, migration is not always cross border, needless to say that decision to migrate entails many factors such as resources to move, livelihoods and social networks. At the advent of any migratory decision these factors come into play and in the absence of social networks and secured livelihoods, options to migrate to a neighbouring country becomes unfeasible if not impossible. It is only a selected few cases like Gaurpodomando's, being situated in the border region of Bangladesh and India, who are likely to endeavour in such cross border migration. Secondly, due to inadequate social safety net programs and non-compliance of rule of law for slum dwellers, the post migration period is also often marked with many difficulties and hardships.
Climate change could affect the movement of people in at least four different ways: The intensification of natural disasters; increased warming and drought that affects agricultural production and access to clean water; rising sea levels make coastal areas uninhabitable and increase the number of sinking island states (44% of the world's population lives within 150 kilometers of the coast), and competition over natural resources may lead to conflict and in turn displacement.
Perhaps it needs no further elaboration that Bangladesh is going to be affected by all these factors and seemingly from every direction. Up north, droughts and floods are already taking their toll on the agricultural sector as farmers gradually see their crop yield decline every year. Salt water intrusion from sea level rise, salinity in low-lying agricultural plains and two consecutive cyclone storms, Sidr and Aila, have made life down south equally unpredictable. All these events along with other hazards could lead to 40 percent decrease in food grain production and likely to increase the forced migration incidences contributing further to the high urban slum population. Similarly, estimates show that just a 1 to 2 degree increase in temperature would force the physical dislocation of more than 35 million people in Bangladesh.
This year at COP 15, the Western world still continued to grapple with the issues related to climate induced forced migration. A few studies were shared regarding this, the delegates across the world nodded their heads with mixed approval and then moved to the next issue. Those in favour of Obama's plan believed that the U.S. President may have tried to convince the Congress to pass a domestic cap-and-trade bill. Meanwhile, the European Union continued to struggle to implement a plan on reducing emissions and despite their best interest. China and India, which have the economic muscles to begin action, debated over how much responsibility to bear for fast-rising emissions. There was little news about Harinagar or Kutubdia, where men and women said they probably won't be able to wait for politicians to agree on a global solution.
A world waiting for a change
The issue of climate induced population displacement as of today remains a shadow issue and is only uttered in passing during climate change dialogues. Primarily two factors contribute to the marginalisation of this problem firstly, the terms associated with displacement are often politically sensitive ones, for example, refugees and migrants are loaded words in political dynamics and thus the topical issue has been abandoned in many negotiation chapters. Even in negotiation text of COP 15, planned migration and relocation of those displaced by climate change factors has been carefully put in brackets, which has neither legal binding nor has the support of the technical committees. What can we do then?
We can perhaps start with what we shouldn't do. First, we must not treat climate induced forced migration and voluntary overseas migration within the same bracket. One must also understand migrants are not always a threat to the local job markets. Over the years, Global Climate Change campaigns (GCCC) along with 350.org have inspired a generation to take action against stopping carbon footprints and emissions steered by the developed world. The fact of the matter is that those who pollute will always try to downplay their acts and their underlying consequences. Therefore, we must not get caught in this act, constantly reminding the developed world to cut down on emissions, go green etc. These campaigns nevertheless are concepts of noble counterparts of those who pollute the most, which constantly reminds them of what they should and should not do. In other words, such campaigns are catering to the interest of those who are more responsible for climate change. It is certainly an important exercise without which we may never be able to reverse the course of climate change. However, equally important is to change people's perception about climate migrants. How come we don't see campaigns that communicate issues that cater to the needs of the developing world, for example: climate induced migration does not mean cross-border migration. Lack of awareness regarding this phenomenon will always discourage policy makers and world communities to talk about such a burning issue let alone take action.
Second, we should not advocate for radical ideologies, for example activists and NGO workers likely to feel the brunt of climate induced forced migration often urge the world community to take in a share of climate migrants. There is no issue more global than global warming and climate change. Climate migrants however belong to a different chapter. It is indeed a local issue driven by apparently unforeseen global factors. It is a local issue as long as migration is managed and regulated within the border of a country. However, if this is to be posed as a global issue and if claims are made to the global community to be responsible for their action and accommodate a share of climate induced migrants as a possible compensation gesture, then those who are making the claims must also behave as if they are operating in the globalised world. The globalised world is a competitive world, and perhaps it is not a feasible idea for the Rashedas and Gaurpodomandos of the world to embark into a new country and start over. With no skills and language barriers to overcome, these future climate migrants would be further marginalised.
Migration is not failure to adaptation, rather a form of adaptation. Migration has always been one of the ways in which people have chosen to adapt to changing environments. Migration can also help those left behind in environmentally degraded areas. Studies in Côte d'Ivoire, for example, have shown that migrants who moved from Burkina Faso regularly sent home remittances which were invested in schools and hospitals and in water and irrigation systems. Moreover, migrants are often the first to provide assistance when natural disasters occur. Hence, adaptation efforts made by government should be complementary to migration discourse, thereby making it a choice rather than forced.
The agro-sector is increasingly becoming vulnerable to climate change which is causing occupational dislocations. While climate resilient seeds and rainwater harvesting are great adaptation initiatives, efforts should also be made to develop a parallel non-agriculture sector which is not susceptible to environment and climate change as such. Social entrepreneurship is taking new shape and dynamics and emerging as a topical interest to many governments of the world. It may perhaps be a far-reaching idea if not a relatively new direction in thinking to approach a market base solution other than ad hoc conventional solutions to fight climate change. The government can help such entrepreneurs to take the first step and promote social business as a means of adaptation. For example: a community water treatment plant can resolve the salinity issues in the south-west of Bangladesh. Development of SMEs may create jobs in sectors other than agriculture.
Bangladesh, otherwise known as the birth place of micro finance is yet to be equipped with micro-insurance, institutions. Enterprise based solutions such as these can introduce new insurance products such as crop and livestock insurance for those living in the rural areas and at the same time extend health care services at the urban centers, especially for the slum dwellers.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP
Under the blue sky
Amidst the chaotic structures, cacophonic traffic and fast paced life of city folks, metal shafts of urban slums have slowly and significantly blended in with the city lines. This is also creating an illusion of an ever expanding informal service industry which would draw thousands to the city in search of a better life. Thus, urban slums are no longer a myth even when some city folks arguably seek a glance and never question the source. But it is real, and it is here to stay with the remains of hustles and bustles of city lives of Dhaka and this is a story true for every rising metropolitan area in Bangladesh.
Under the blue sky they live and work and make do with life and under the blue sky is where they find a place to call home away from home. Tens and thousands flock into urban life, not everyone may have an environmental history behind them, but certainly a large number of them do. It is difficult to screen out economic migrants from the climate induced ones; then again, climate change and other environmental factors do include economic motifs as well.
While the broad consensus has emerged on climate induced population displacement, there is still some uncertainty. The incidence of climate induced population displacement is still speculated as an unnecessary gimmick, overblown hyperactive media. It is true that things may not turn out as badly as depicted by some doomsayers; on the other hand, they may prove to be far worse. In thirty to fifty years time, if Bangladesh finds 15-20% landmass lying under water along with small island states like Maldives, it will be too late to do anything. This is why we need to start planning and acting now.
Adnan Sirajee is a consultant at the International Finance Cooperation (IFC), The World Bank Group.