Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing

- Protecting Animals and Conserving the Environment

Environmental Refugees

The effects of burning fossil fuels and the release billions of tones of carbon dioxide in to the air has caused the Earth to warm, this consequently has change the delicate and intricate weather patterns that we humans rely upon for all matters of our living and livelihood, whether we know it or not. The current trends in climate change have led to droughts, flooding, rising sea-levels, abnormally powerful hurricanes, desertification and host of other extreme environmental conditions that have caused the upheaval and displacement of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world.

These people are called “environmental” or “climate change” refugees. According to the aid agency Tearfund, currently there are an estimated 25 million environmental refugees which is more than all the 22 million officially recognized “conventional” refugees made up of political and economic refugees. The study entitled “Feeling the Heat” states “There will be millions more thirsty, hungry and ill poor people living in high-risk areas of the world by the end of the century. It makes sense politically, economically and morally, for governments to act with urgency now.”

According to Dr. Janos Bogardi, director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University in Bonn, environmental deterioration currently displaces up to 10 million people per year and there are expected to be 50 million environmental refugees by 2010 and 150 million by 2050.

Dr. Bogardi commented “There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena.”

Although most of those displaced are living in sub Saharan Africa, people in every country on every continent will be affected especially those in Asia and developing or low-lying communities. Other experts put estimations of the future number of people displaced due to climate change much higher. Economist Norman Myers says that the number of climate refugees could reach 200 million in the next 50 years, the charitable organization Christian Aid expect the number to be closer to 1 billion people.

Although the situation is very urgent environmental refugees are still not officially recognized under any international accords like the Geneva Convention thus denying them access to support and assistance including food and shelter that conventional refugees are entitled to under international law. The list of the various communities displaced for differing environmental reasons is un-ending, they include: 20% of Brazilians born in the arid parts of the country moving to avoid drought, Mexicans moving to the US because of low crop yields and Nigerian farmers moving to the city as their lands turn in to desert.

In Alaska 213 communities are in danger from rising sea levels, every year the sea creeps 3 meters further inland the situation is so serious the entire Inupiat village of Shimshmeref will be moving 13.5 miles further in to avoid the rising water. Today we will look at some of the most pressing and urgent situations around the globe that are forcing people to uprooting from their homelands never to return again.

Desertification Displacing Millions

 In the most populous nation in the world, China’s Gobi Desert is expanding at an astonishing 4,000 square miles per year. According to China’s Environmental Protection Agency the desert expanded by 20,240 square miles between 1994 and 1999 and now the Gobi sand dunes can be seen a mere 43 miles from the capital of Beijing.

In order to try and stop the capital being consumed by the desert the government has invested US$ 8 billion to set-up a 2,000 mile wall of trees to protect the city. The expansion of the Gobi Desert has already forced thousands of farmers and villagers to migrate as the water vanishes and their land becomes dry and unable to grow crops.

After a visit to the Xilingol Prefecture in Inner Mongolia, a 2001 report by the US embassy in China noted that although 97% of the prefecture was originally grassland now approximately one third is desert. Scientists warn that if the current trend continues Xilingol will be uninhabitable in 15 years time, potential forcing the current 933,000 inhabitants in search of a new home. The migration of people away from the ever expanding desert has already caused 4,000 people from a village in western Inner Mongolia to abandon their homes and this is just one example of many environmental refugees that have begun to stream away from the 3 provinces: Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Gansu.

An Asian Development Bank assessment on desertification identified 4,000 villages in Gansu province that face abandonment. Another study by the US embassy entitled “Desert Mergers and Acquisitions” reports that satellite images show 2 deserts in north-central China expanding to form a single larger desert overlapping Inner Mongolia and Gansu. In Xinjiang province to the west another two deserts the Taklimakan and the Kumtag are also expanding and heading for merger. The reason for the desertification is largely due to climate change and over grazing. Huge numbers of livestock eat the grasses and vegetation of the land which are not replaced with trees or other plants that help to bind and revitalize the soil.

However China is not the only country that is witnessing a rising tide of environmental refugees from the desertification and deterioration of their lands. In Nigeria 1,350 square miles of land are turned in to desert each year which forces many farmers and their families to move in to the cities. In Iran thousands of villages have already been abandoned. The eastern provinces of Baluchistan and Sistan have seen 124 villages buried under sand. In a small town, an hour away from Tehran, 88 villages have been abandoned. Also Morocco, Tunisia and Libya lose over 1,000 square kilometers of land to the desert each year.

The World Watch Institute estimates that approximately 24 thousand million tons of topsoil are lost annually worldwide.  In Turkey 160,000 square kilometers of farm land is affected by soil erosion and even more so desertification is rampant in India and the Sahel and sub Saharan regions of Africa. The UN Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya estimates by 2060 Africa will have 50 million environmental refugees.

Wars and Conflict

Such climate change related events such as soil erosion and drought have widespread implications for the people living in those regions, not only do they migrate away to other places in search of better conditions but competition for the limited resources available may give rise to wars. The case of Darfur in Sudan is one such example.

The Darfur conflict is thought by most to be predominantly a political or ethnic issue; however evidence from experts suggests that the situation which has left 2.5 million homeless is largely due to global warming and climate change. The problems first started two decades ago when Darfur’s ethnic African farmers and tribes of Arab nomads started competing with each other for scarce water resources and arable land on which to graze animals. Since the drought in the 1980’s and the subsequent low rainfall volumes, the competition worsened.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote in the Washington Post “Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail. ... Scientists at first considered this to be an unfortunate quirk of nature. But subsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming”. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also writes on the causes of the Darfur situation “Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

 An 18 month study by UN Environment Program in to the links between the Darfur situation and climate change suggests that new conflicts may spread away from Sudan as the current environmental conditions worsen in the surrounding region. The report says in part the conflicts in Chad are also associated with environmental changes and that the most vulnerable areas such as the Sahel could experience a 70% failure rate in crop yields.

The study also discovered Rainfall in the region has decreased by 30% over the last 40 years and the desert in northern Sudan has advanced by 60 miles over the same period whilst the Sahara Desert is advancing by over a mile annually. Climate change models predict that temperatures around Sudan could increase by 0.5C to 1.5C between 2030 and 2060. Mr. Muawia Shaddad from the Sudan Environment Conservation Society said “the consciousness of the world on the issue of climate change has to change fast, Darfur is just an early warning”.

Cyclones and Refugees


It is not just the developing parts of the world that are experiencing the effects of climate change and the subsequent displacement or movement of people away from adverse environmental conditions.

One natural disaster that forced many to flee from their homes was Katrina the category 5 hurricane that slammed in to the gulf coast in 2005. The resulting flooding, damage and destruction of property caused by the 28 foot high storm surge left 1 million people seeking refuge across the US at least 250,000 of which will never return that’s according to information from the Earth Policy Institute.

Research from Professor Kerry Emanuel from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that the power of hurricanes has almost doubled since the 1950’s which is thought to be a direct result of increased sea surface temperature (SST) driven by global warming. As SSTs rise, this increases the amount of moisture that is pulled in to the forming hurricane making it stronger and longer lasting as well as more destructive. Thus super cyclones have become more common, such as Cyclone Nargis which affected Myanmar and flooded the Irrawaddy Delta region leaving 2.4 million homeless.   

Disappearing Lands, Disappearing Homes

Sea level rises are the probably most immediate and worrisome factor in the ongoing environmental refugee crisis. Rising global temperatures are melting the polar ice caps which are releasing massive amounts of water in to the oceans and seas, approximately 100 billion tons of ice melt annually in Greenland alone. And as the oceans warms not only does more ice melt but also the water expands raising sea levels still further.

So why is this a problem? Approximately 100 million people live in areas below sea level that means any storm surges or sea level rises have the potential to displace these people from their coastal residences.  UN Under-Secretary General Anwarul Karim Chowdhury has said that the most at risk countries from sea level rises are Bangladesh, Cambodia, Kiribati, the Maldives, Comoros, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Already two islands belonging to Kiribati have been totally submerged.

Tuvalu a beautiful island state consisting of 9 atolls has been inhabited by Polynesians for almost 3000 year but the largest atoll has already lost a meter of land around its circumference. New Zealand has agreed to accept the 11,600 citizens of Tuvalu if or when their country is overtaken by the rising water; in fact phased relocation has already begun.

The case of Bangladesh is much larger, according to a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report the sea level rise on the Bangla coast line could be about one meter in the next 50 years this will cause 11% of Bangladesh’s landmass to be covered by the water from the Bay of Bengal, forcing approximately 20 million environmental refugees inland to the already over populated and over burdened cities. 20 million people that is almost equivalent to the entire population of Australia. Already half a million Bengalis were made homeless in 2005 when half of Bhola Island was permanently flooded, these were the so called first environmental refugees from rising sea levels.

Such water level rises would completely sink the Maldives and affect 67% of the population living in the Netherlands. Further rises would affect low lying mega cities around the world including: London, Shanghai, Hamburg, Bangkok, Bombay, Manila, Buenos Aires and Venice. Up to 10 million could be displaced in the Philippines and millions more in Egypt where there is a high population density along the Nile River which lies only 2 meters above sea level. A recent study by Gordon McGranahan, Deborah Balk, and Bridget Anderson (2007) found that although coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level constitute only 2 percent of the world's land area, they contain 10 percent of the world's population or 670 million people.

Dr. Tony Oliver-Smith an expert on natural hazards at the University of Florida commented “Around the world vulnerability is on the increase, due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas. Combine this trend with rising sea levels and the growing number and intensity of storms and it is a recipe for a disaster, with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration”


All of this is just a small part of a very large subject that has global ramifications for humanity. It is clear that something needs to be done quickly, not only do environmental refugees need to be recognized and protected under law but the underlying cause needs to be dealt with by all people and governments. The underlying cause is of course is global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. If action is not taken immediately the consequences could be drastic.

British Chief of the Defense Staff Sir Jock Stirrup was quoted in a Christian Aid report on environmental refugees entitled “Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis” as saying “Climate change and growing competition for scarce resources are together likely to increase the incidence of humanitarian crises. The spread of desert regions, a scarcity of water, coastal erosion, declining arable land, damage to infrastructure from extreme weather: all this could undermine security”.


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