Over the next few decades, tens of millions of people will be driven from their homes. Braving violence and poverty, they’ll roam desperately across continents and borders in search of work and shelter. Unlike other refugees, though, their plight won’t be blamed simply on the familiar horrors of war or persecution; they’ll blame the weather.
If you haven’t heard about the rising tide of environmental migrants, that’s because throngs of displaced black and brown people don’t evoke the same public sympathy as photos of polar bear cubs. The governments of rich industrialized nations will scramble to shut the gates on the desperate hordes with the same self-serving efficiency with which they’ve long ignored the social, ecological and economic consequences of their prosperity. But both efforts at blissful ignorance will fail, because climate change is forcing society to confront the mounting natural and man-made disasters on the horizon.
In 2010, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, “more than 90 percent of all disasters and 65 percent of associated economic damages were weather and climate related (i.e. high winds, flooding, heavy snowfall, heat waves, droughts, wildfires). In all, 874 weather and climate-related disasters resulted in 68,000 deaths and $99 billion in damages worldwide.”
Those numbers look worse on the ground. In rural Bangladesh, where some of South Asia’s major riverways converge, rising waters are threatening to swallow vulnerable coastal communities and leave millions without homes. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the sea level need only rise by a few feet to turn a cultivated area of 1,000 kilometers squared into sopping marsh. The frequency and intensity of floods continues to escalate exponentially, pushing young workers into the cities to earn a living and eroding rural communities and their cultures.
While some places soak, others bake. An ongoing drought crisis in East Africa has created massive hunger and aggravated conflict between groups vying for dwindling resources in an increasingly barren terrain. The United Nations estimated that in 2009, conflicts over cattle grazing and water resources led to several hundred deaths.
It’s hard to pinpoint climate as a decisive factor in this sort of social upheaval, but the evidence grows more pronounced with each violent storm, ruined harvest and tribal clash: the cumulus of natural calamities makes it harder to live and thus harder to coexist with our neighbors.
On “Democracy Now!”, Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos,” described how climate-driven warfare brings the environmental toll of imperialism full circle.
From 1945 to 1990 the U.N. said there were 150 or so armed conflicts that killed 20 million people, displaced 15 million, 16 million were wounded. That all happened in the “global south” in this belt of states. And so now that’s where climate change is kicking in and that was also the same terrain where the last 30 years of IMF and World Bank-backed structural adjustment of privatization, deregulation of economies, cutting state support for farmers and fishermen—that program affected those states most intensely. And now the weather associated with climate change, extreme weather such as the drought, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, is adding to this. And there’s this catastrophic convergence.
Grassroots environmental groups have rallied around the concept of “climate debt” to demand justice for the ecological destruction of the Global South. Still, the immediate humanitarian threats posed by climate change reveal the difficulty of thinking long term in the face of intense scarcity.
A warming planet is a thirsty one.
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Water is one reason why Southern Sudan’s new independence could just be a temporary respite in a raging struggle for ecological wealth. The world’s youngest nation is at the heart of the Nile River Basin, which supports several economies and ecosystems and fuels toxic tensions among them. Last year, economics professor Paul Sullivan of National Defense University, predicted that without equitable management of precious water, Sudan’s partition would merely pave the way for more turmoil:
Water, land, food, energy and development are tightly and importantly interlinked. Water is also very much linked to the potential for peace in the country. The tensions and potentials for peace in Darfur, between the north and the south—and amongst many other in other regions, including between local tribes and clans—can be, in part, determined, by the availability, quality, sharing, management and maintenance of water sources in the country.
A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report offered similar warnings about Afghanistan and Pakistan, where “water scarcity… triggers human insecurity, which can intensify potentially explosive tensions among neighboring countries or regions.” Alarmingly, the report recommended that the U.S. government integrate water management into its occupation of the region, which would expand Washington’s control over civilian resources in an arena of unending conflict.
And long before popular uprisings in Egypt, analysts were predicting that climate change would feed into geopolitical instability in the Middle East.
Al Jazeera reports that water shortages could tip Yemen’s political turmoil toward full-blown civil war.
Yemen’s capital Sanaa, from where president Ali Saleh left the country after he was injured during protests, could effectively run out of water by 2025, hydrology experts say.
Water shortages could cost the unstable country 750,000 jobs, slashing incomes in the poorest Arab country by as much as 25 per cent over the next decade….
Commentators frequently blame Yemen’s problems on tribal differences, but environmental scarcity may be underpinning secessionist struggles in the country’s south and some general communal violence.
One of the perverse intersections between the water and climate crises is a misguided attempt to solve both through the energy industry.
For instance, while hydroelectricity has been touted as a “clean” power source, activists point out that energy-intensive mega-dam projects may actually ruin ecosystems and belch even more carbon into the atmosphere—and strengthen oppressive regimes as well. The government of Burma has used dam construction as a pretext for driving out indigenous groups and crushing political dissent. The military has repeatedly cracked down on isolated minority villages to clear the way for lucrative dam-building projects, which are typically designed to funnel electricity to energy-hungry consumers in China at the expense of Burma’s poorest communities.
One 85 year-old who fled to Thailand from his homeland in 2008, whose story was recorded by the Shan Sapawa Environment Organization, couldn’t imagine life in exile:
My spirit is here; I am connected to this land…. When the military burned our village and forced us out from our homeland, we still hand the land. If the water floods over, we will have nothing left.”
Frustrated by political gridlock in international negotiations on carbon emissions, the climate justice movement sees the link between climate and conflict as a call for broad-based solutions that blend the environmental with the social. That can start with the political enfranchisement of indigenous groups and securing food and water sovereignty for the poor. From there, the people most impacted by climate change can work toward inclusive development to heal the damage and move toward more sustainable energy.
But environmental migrants have a long way to go before they reach justice. Meanwhile, whether displaced by nature’s wrath or civil war, the new refugees are running out of places to run.