Endless crowds of the desperately poor have long been a common sight in the sweltering South Asian metropolis of Dhaka, Bangladesh. But the forces pushing migrants into the city are not what they once were. Today, the shantytowns of Dhaka overflow with rural farmers fleeing a countryside devastated alternating Biblical floods and fierce droughts. The city is seen by these desperate migrants as a gem of opportunity. They find instead a city of slums. These desperate neighborhoods are now home to half of Dhaka’s 15 million residents—and equivalent neighborhoods are found in any major city of the developing world. For the first time in history, conflict has been unseated as the leading cause of human displacement. It has been replaced by a potentially more horrific force that is sure to define the international, political and humanitarian dialogue of the 21st century: Environmental degradation.
For generations, Americans have opened their borders, hearts, and checkbooks to lessen the suffering of migrants fleeing violence. Now the United States and the international community must recognize that environmental refugees—individuals displaced by natural transformation caused by human-induced climate change —constitute a vulnerable and ever-growing segment of the global population. With their host countries overwhelmed by their sheer numbers, these refugees are often left unaided. They are often reduced to extreme poverty—a fate which threatens to destabilize their host region and perpetuate environmental strain.
As of 2010, environmental migrants numbered 50 million. While the crises they face are local, the culprits are not. The underlying causes of these disasters are often global in scope. Worldwide fluctuations in temperature have already begun altering rates of evaporation, wind currents, and other atmospheric mechanisms that shape weather patterns. Pier Vellings and Willem van Verseveld of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the Vrije University in Amsterdam report that during the last several decades, environmental changes have played integral roles in drastically altering storm systems, often increasing the intensity and frequency of devastating natural events such as floods, severe droughts and violent storms. As a result the new residents of Dhaka’s slums leave behind farmland battered by increasingly brief but intensified monsoons. The growing season cut short, farmers face near starvation for much of the year. When the rains do come, their force often waterlogs the soil, decimating crops and eroding the landscape. Low lying, wet ecosystems such as the deltas and floodplanes of the tropics are particularly vulnerable to intensifying natural catastrophes. As disasters destroy the precarious livelihoods of subsistence farmers in these areas, they are forced to move to ill-equipped cities or alien villages.
This problem is not unique to Dhaka. Water-related risks pose a challenge for cities and regions across the developing world. A huge portion of the global populace lives in cities along the coast—centers that lie directly in the path of rising sea levels and more acute hurricanes and typhoons. A natural disaster striking a metropolis in the developing world, like a flood or monsoon, would send wave after wave of city dwellers into surrounding regions that contain no supporting infrastructure, few employment opportunities, and a weak administrative structure. Americans remember all too well the destruction Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans; they need imagine the horror an equivalent crisis would bring to an overcrowded city in the developing world, with no flood-mitigation infrastructure in place to lessen the damage.
Meanwhile, as rising temperatures, changing environmental factors, and existing agricultural practices exacerbate the problem of water scarcity in already dry regions, soil depletion and erosion are becoming the norm. In China’s Gobi Desert, 10,000 fertile acres are lost each year to desertification, putting hundreds of thousands of farmers out of work. The reduced vegetation levels force struggling subsistence livestock herders to drive their herds longer distances to find grasses. Ironically, the grazing and increased transience of the animals only compounds the crisis by battering the land further. Linden Elis of the Woodrow Wilson International Center reports that advancing sands now threaten entire villages and cities. In the Gansu province alone 4,000 communities are at high risk of being engulfed. Farmers, herdsmen, and urbanites alike must grapple with the water shortages accompanying desertification. According to the United Nations, the sum of these effects may create 50 million environmental refugees in China alone by the end of 2010.
Compounding the works of nature, poor resource management and rising global consumption have placed new stresses on water sources. In the majority of struggling agricultural regions, there is no legal architecture in place to ensure the sustainable use of existing environmental resources. In dry Yemen, for example, aquifer use exceeds consumption by a factor of five, while the World Bank cites that the aquifer nearest the capital, Sana’a, servicing two million citizens is dangerously close to running dry this year. Advances in pumping and irrigation technology, as well as increases in their accessibility, have vastly expanded potential water extraction levels from aquifers. In Yemen, the government actually subsidizes the diesel used in aquifer pumps, making excessive water use cheaper and more frequent. Other countries, such as Mexico, which gets over half of its water from overpumped aquifers, are facing similar obstacles.
Rivers and streams are disappearing just as quickly. Major waterways such as China’s Yellow River and Mexico’s Rio Grande repeatedly run dry in their lower regions. Because of a lack of clear water rights and associated enforcement mechanisms for surface and groundwater extraction in the developing world, governments, villages, and private actors are unable to properly manage water use to ensure sustainability. If water sources disappear, then every component of their surrounding communities risks collapse: Transportation is strangled, thirst runs rampant, agriculture is impossible, sanitation becomes difficult, and more resources have to be spent chasing after distant water sources. Such a scenario would produce millions of environmental refugees.
The alterations in water availability, temperature and precipitation also influence food supplies, toying as they do with crop cycles and plant fertility. Environmental mismanagement in farming can further reduce food supplies by degrading soil fertility. In Egypt, farmers attempted to enhance fertility with salt additives, only to make 50 percent of its agrarian lands fallow. Simultaneously, Senegal’s peanut basin has lost its productivity because of erosion and deforestation. Subsistence farmers in Latin America have also discovered that planting crops on marginal land such as the former site of rainforest vegetation depletes the few remaining nutrients from the soil, leaving it infertile for years. Ultimately, the 2007 United Nations Development Program Human Development Report asserts that 600 million people face the risk of malnutrition as a result of agricultural system collapse caused by environmental pressures. In the developing world, this warning may be falling on deaf ears. The struggling Yemeni farmer has no choice but to continue to water his land, even if each year reaps less produce and greater strain on local water resources. Migration is often the only choice.
Rabab Fatima, the South Asia representative of the International Organization for Migration, explains that environmentally induced resettlement exhibits a noticeable pattern across the globe. Once these environmental strains induce country dwellers to leave their homes, they are most likely to venture between nearby towns due to financial restrictions, and then eventually to a city, where they feel opportunity might be easier to find.
Consider the scenario: Waves of poor subsistence farmers move into cities with out the appropriate educational and experiential knowledge set to contribute to an increasingly knowledge-based urban economy. Most have few savings and spend a great deal of what they did have on the journey alone. They then take up residence in slums, where most homes have no access to electricity, running water, or sewage services. Inhabiting an alien world swollen with laborers in similar situations, these migrants cannot hope to find a well-paying job, and government support services are often minimal. It is likely that many will contract and spread infectious diseases such as cholera and dysentery, maladies that particularly thrive in these poor, overcrowded living situations. The weak health care systems in place in many of these developing economies are simply not equipped to design and monitor relief activities, provide immunizations and basic health services, or survey and control the spread of diseases.
Increasingly desperate, some turn to the crime that surrounds them in the slums. They cannot possibly make the expensive journey home because they’ve spent their last dollars. Many come to the cities with families, which only serves to intensify the problem. The simple fact that their children are unlikely to acquire a formal education arrises hundreds of unfortunate ramifications. This is the pattern in Dhaka, Addis Ababa, Lagos, and dozens of other cities across the world.
What’s more, the large-scale movement of environmental refugees only perpetuates environmental strain. As noted by Koko Warner of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security, the elevated and concentrated resource use these newcomers impose on an urban center might easily outstrip already insufficient food, water, and material stocks. This only further fuels harmful resource depletion, damaging the environment and hindering access to necessities. Meanwhile, the fact that the poor migrants cannot pay for access to sanitation services promotes environmentally devastating dumping in water ecosystems. Impoverished cities are already struggling to process waste. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, for example, 35 percent to 55 percent of solid waste is not even collected, let alone handled in a green manner. Galvanizing rapid expansions in the slums, the migrants promote haphazard urban sprawl.
The consequences of this expansion are often politically destabilizing. Water riots have already erupted in many Yemeni communities, only further compounding the inability to effectively manage water there. Armed violence in particular is likely to develop when desparate environmental migrants are forced to cross ethnic boundaries that separate rival groups.
Because municipalities receiving refugees cannot solve all these issues alone, it falls to regional and global institutions to address the problems at hand. With the trans-national crisis of environmental refugees becoming too extensive to ignore, such organizations have already begun emerging in the developing world. For example, the African Union laid the foundations for legal solutions at the Special Summit for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, where it was officially mandated that its constituents recognize and treat the various causes of internal displacement, including natural degradation. Industrialized nations and the global institutions they command, such as the U.N., have done almost nothing.
One practical step the U.N. can take is to institute the legal recognition of environmental migrants by classifying them as refugees. Currently, individuals who move across borders due to climate change are not protected as seekers of asylum and are not offered aid or residency by high-income U.N. member states. Although most environmental migrants move internally as natural degradation becomes more severe, cross-border movement is sure to become more common. The best avenues for U.N. recognition are its international climate change summits such as the one held in Copenhagen in December. There, U.N. member states and working groups can amend international law to afford more protections to migrants displaced by climate change. Such legal frameworks are critical—without them, cross-border environmental migrants might not be well received by host governments and locals and are at particular risk of crossing hostile ethnic lines.
But more than just imposing laws, large international institutions have the capacity to provide the funding and knowledge behind the solutions to crises sparked by environmental migrants. Regional organizations in the developing world simply do not have the capital to cope with these problems, especially when their members are desecrated by natural disasters. There are signs that solutions might not be too far off. On this front, structures are already in place to link the expertise of first-world planners and engineers with cities in the third world. The International Society of City and Regional Planners, a global network of civil engineers and urban planners, holds conferences multiple times a year, with professionals convening in a different city experiencing a particular urban problem—be it resource maintenance, in the case of Nairobi this year, or economic regeneration, in the case of Guadalajara in 2008. The group has committed itself to working outside of existing authorities and engaging closely with local knowledge.
But sound urban planning and place-specific initiatives, while necessary, are not the key to solving the entire set of problems faced by the victims of environmental catastrophe. Environmental problems are rarely localized; pollution flowing through the Nile in Egypt could have been generated by fertilizer runoff in Sudan. What this reality requires is a regional approach to targeting ecological concerns. Regional organizations offer forums for rapid response to environmental disasters. Rather than relying on agreements between the variety of nations present in larger international organizations, regional groups operate under settlements between smaller bands of nations with similar interests by geography. Such agreements—tailored to the specific environmental realities of the region—could prevent potential refugees from being displaced in the first place.
Part of the challenge in the developed world is acknowledging these issues. Better equipped to deal with the effects of climate change, the citizens of industrialized nations have the luxury of ignoring the effects of their consumption patterns. While first-world governments have the tools to mitigate the subsequent ramifications, the billions of individuals in the developing world have no such mechanisms at their disposal. What this amounts to is what Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation calls “environmental persecution”—a form of discrimination worth recognizing alongside political discrimination in international law. Many in the West are quick to point a finger and call for action against the perpetrators of political violence and exodus. But environmental exodus cannot be solved so simply. Long-term solutions require global scope, requiring sacrifices from all members of the international community—in the developed and developing worlds alike.Tweet