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ENVIRONMENT: Millions Flee Floods, Desertification

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Oct 12 2005 (IPS) - The United Nations estimates that upwards of 50 million people may be on the move in five years due to environmental disasters and degradation.

More people are already displaced by environmental disasters than war, according to the Red Cross.

Sea level rise, expanding deserts and catastrophic weather-induced flooding have already contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions, United Nations University (UNU) experts said in statement marking the U.N. Day for Disaster Reduction on Wednesday.

The hundreds of thousands of environmental refugees in the U.S. Gulf Coast resulting from two recent hurricanes are “just the tip of the iceberg”, says Janos Bogardi, director of UNU’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

“There are many more people on the move who are much more desperate,” Bogardi told IPS. “If untreated at the source, this will spiral out of control.”

People affected by well-publicised environmental disasters like the Oct. 8 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2004 Asian tsunami or the recent U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes benefit from the mobilisation of private and public sector generosity and humanitarian relief.

Countless millions of others around the world, however, are uprooted by gradual environmental change like desertification, land degradation and sea level rise. Forced to move elsewhere, these displaced people receive comparatively little support such as food, tools, shelter, medical care and grants, and are not even recognised as “refugees”.

“There are international mechanisms to assist those fleeing wars or conflicts but there is nothing right now to deal with environmental refugees,” says Bogardi.

“This is a highly complex issue, with global organisations already overwhelmed by the demands of conventionally-recognised refugees, as originally defined in 1951,” says U.N. Under-Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU.

“We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of ‘refugee’ within international frameworks,” van Ginkel said in a release.

Experts say the term “environmental refugees” must be carefully defined and distinguished from economic migrants, who depart voluntarily to find a better life but may return home without persecution.

But defining an environmental refugee is a contentious issue, says Tony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist at the University of Florida and UNU-EHS associate.

People often believe that nearly all environmental disasters are natural disasters when in fact many are the result of human actions, such as unsustainable use of natural resources, Oliver-Smith said in an interview.

Among many global problem sites, Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, has doubled its population on average every six years since 1972 and now stands at 900,000. The aquifer on which the city depends is falling by six metres a year, and may be exhausted by 2010, according to the World Bank.

In China, the Gobi Desert is expanding more than 10,000 square kilometres per year, threatening many villages. Oxford-based expert Norman Myers says Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are each losing over 1,000 square kilometres of productive land a year to desertification. In Egypt, half of irrigated croplands suffer from salinisation, while in Turkey, 160,000 square kilometres of farmland is affected by soil erosion.

It is important to recognise and relieve the plight of displaced people and not let national governments “off the hook for their failure to help prevent land degradation … and, in some cases, for their collusion with owners of forest companies, open mines, and large cattle ranches in practices that degrade land, ” said UNU-EHS associate and advisor Ben Wisner.

“Even in the case of natural events like hurricanes, building a city like New Orleans below sea level in a known hurricane zone was a human decision that led to an environmental catastrophe,” said Oliver-Smith.

Worries about toxins in the environment and the costs of rebuilding will likely mean that a large percentage of people displaced from New Orleans will never move back, he said.

Even in the case of the recent earthquake in Pakistan, the majority of the deaths and displaced people can be attributed to the failure of building structures and their location.

“Several hundred thousand people could be permanently displaced,” Oliver-Smith said.

Chief among the slow-moving disasters is land degradation, where croplands and pastures – either because of mismanagement or changing climates – can no longer support the people that live there. Millions of people in Africa and Asia have been forced off their land, and where states cannot cope, the international community has to step in says Bogardi.

And with the growing impacts of climate change, ever larger numbers of people will be affected and forced off their lands.

“Around the world, vulnerability is on the increase due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas,” says Oliver-Smith. “Combine this trend with rising sea levels and the growing number and intensity of storms and it is the recipe for a disaster-in-waiting, with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration.”

Some are already planning for the worst. The low-lying Pacific island state of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with New Zealand to accept its 11,600 citizens in the event that rising sea levels swamp the country. By one rough estimate, as many as 100 million people worldwide live in areas below sea level and that could be subject to storm surge.

Bogardi says the UNU is calling for creation of an intergovernmental panel on land degradation along the lines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to address this global problem.

“I just hope we act faster than we have on climate change,” he said.

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