Refugees are people who seek asylum for fear of political, racial or religious persecution or people who leave their homes because of war or civil strife. This traditional notion of refugees, however, leave out the new, growing and quickly spreading phenomenon of environmental refugees triggered by natural calamities like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides resulting to forced displacement of people. (When people seek refuge within their own countries as environmental refugees, they are commonly referred to as internally displaced persons).
Recent scientific studies show that rising seas will supplant encroaching desserts and other forms of land degradation as the major threat to habitability of many places this century. The evacuation of 1,400 residents of Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands (the world’s first climate change refugees according to the UN) due to rising sea levels offers a sobering vision of the future for coastal populations.
Global warming brought about by excessive fossil fuel use is reported to result to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of the icecaps. A one meter increase in sea level will displace millions of people in the delta regions of the Nile and Ganges rivers, further compounding land scarcity in Egypt and Bangladesh. To think that world population is projected to increase by 90 million annually all of them in need of food, water and shelter. In fact, as the root causes of the on-going Southeast Asian migrant crisis unravel, it would not be surprising if it turns out in the UNHCR backed Bangkok Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean of concerned countries and other probes being carried out that some of those ‘boat people’ are in reality environmental refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar aiming for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The combined effects of warmer climates and higher seas will make typhoons more frequent and more destructive further damaging the habitability of coastal areas. Extensive river diversions will markedly lessen the amount of freshwater discharged into coastal areas while higher sea levels will increase saltwater intrusion thus reducing mangrove forest cover and disrupting major fisheries within fragile ecosystems. Endangered places that may cease to exist include, among others, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Maldives in the Indian Ocean as well as the touristic string of emerald islands and islets in the Caribbean prompting the formation of an association of small island states working towards solutions to their plight to counter sea level rise before the United Nations.
Poverty and inadequate development policies along with rapid population growth are the roots of environmental degradation in the developing world. Present environmental refugees may already be the biggest single group of displaced persons. By the middle of this century, people forced to leave their homes and places of livelihood because of flooding, desertification, toxic pollution, sea level rise or other environmental disruptions may even constitute the largest in number among those displaced by all other means.
Improvement in general environmental practices particularly agricultural methods, including soil conservation, which maintains the capability of ecosystems to support life known in environmental science as ‘carrying capacity’ will help prevent migration of people. Above all, rapid population growth must be managed particularly in places most vulnerable to ecological disasters.
*An environmental law pioneer, Ambassador Amado Tolentino was a Visiting Fellow at Hawaii’s East-West Center.