State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, , , , ,

Unsettled by Climate Change

Short rainfall from October to December of 2005 caused Kenyans to experience a severe drought throughout early 2006. Drought over the past two years is once again causing displacement in the Horn of Africa, and now leading to famine in parts of Somalia. Photo:Beatrice Spadacini/CARE
Short rainfall from October to December of 2005 caused Kenyans to experience a severe drought throughout early 2006. Drought over the past two years is once again causing displacement in the Horn of Africa, and now leading to famine in parts of Somalia. Photo: (c) Beatrice Spadacini/CARE

Climate change already laps at the edges of some communities, disrupting local economies and habitat, and forcing resettlement. But a new study says that any efforts to offset the effects of shifting climate could lead to even more displacement and disruption for many people, particularly the poor.

(c)CARE/Amelia Andrews Jinsi Devi in front of her mud house that is surrounded by water with the tarpaulin on the roof which she received from CARE as part of a relief kit.
Jinsi Devi's mud home in India is surrounded by floodwaters. (c) Amelia Andrews/CARE

The new analysis by an international team of researchers argues that while climate change will force even more people to move, it’s unclear how many people will be affected, where they will come from and where they will go. And, they say, researchers have yet to sort out the relative role of climate versus other factors that induce migration, such as economic uncertainty and political unrest.

The authors want to see more research to understand these dynamics, particularly into the impact of projects designed to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. Many such projects already are in the works, including plans for large dams for hydropower, reservoirs to cope with drought and biofuel plantations – with a common element that they affect potentially large areas where people are already living.

“If the climate models are correct, there will be significant displacement, and there will be people who will need assistance,” said Alex de Sherbinin, the lead author and a geographer with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at the Earth Institute. The analysis, “Preparing for Resettlement Associated with Climate Change,”  was published Thursday in the journal Science.

In anticipation of future displacements, we should look to the past – to what happened when large public projects, such as the many large dam and infrastructure projects built since the 1930s, forced people to resettle. Such planned relocation often led to loss of shelter, land, employment and access to resources, and it can have negative cultural and psychological impacts. The projects disproportionately affect poor and marginal communities. Sometimes those communities are relocated to less viable habitats, such as marginal lands.

All of these factors need to be considered in forming resettlement strategies, in order to avoid a repetition of past mistakes while learning from the few success stories, the authors say. Furthermore, lessons from the past will need to be tailored to new realities. We should screen resettlement areas for future climate impacts such as flooding and drought; and, in the absence of revenues generated by past infrastructure projects, the international community will need to help.

The Science paper follows by a week the release of a British government study that projects that environmental change will force millions of people to migrate in the future. (The CIESIN team contributed to that report, and de Sherbinin blogged about it on State of the Planet the other day. There’s a piece about it in the current Nature as well.) The British study examined how climate change, population growth, land degradation and the increasing consumption of natural resources might affect human migration.

Many people will wind up moving into areas that also are at environmental risk, the study concludes, while millions of others will wind up “trapped” in areas vulnerable to drought, sea level rise and other environmental stresses – either unable, or unwilling to move. The study says planning, climate change adaptation and financing for migration within and between countries should become a major priority.

NASA astronaut image of Kilinailau, also known as Tulun or Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center
NASA astronaut image of Kilinailau, also known as Tulun or Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center

“We’re not trying to be alarmist,” de Sherbinin said. “But, my own view is if you look at a 4 degree [Celsius] warming as a potential, you’re going to see massive reconfiguration of systems – ecosystem boundaries and maybe even new ecosystems that haven’t been in the past. … We should begin to think about how to build capacity for that level of displacement.”

Along the northwest Alaskan coast, in villages such as Shishmaref and Kivalina, climate change already has pushed native Alaskans out of their homes. In the past, sea ice buffered the shoreline from winter storms; but due to warmer temperatures, the ice sets later in the year, allowing storms to eat away the land. Melting permafrost undermines buildings and roads.

For climate-related reasons, resettlement also is taking place for people in the Mekong River delta of Vietnam, the Limpopo River of Mozambique, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China and in islands of Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific. De Sherbinin said the number of people affected is unclear, but not large for now.

While climate change could have its harshest effects on the poor in developing countries, the impacts will be felt worldwide. Low-lying coastal habitats will become more vulnerable as sea level rises due to global warming. In those areas, whether in a relatively poor nation like Bangladesh, or an affluent area like Florida, saltwater will intrude into fresh water supplies, and changes in precipitation patters could increase flooding. Other areas – the Horn of Africa, the U.S. Southwest — are vulnerable to long-term drought, creating competition for scarce resources.

Many of the projects that governments undertake to reduce risk – such as sea walls and water storage infrastructure – will have consequences of their own for displacement.

The paper in Science, the result of a conference at Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, was prepared by a multidisciplinary team including demographers, anthropologists and researchers specializing in health assessments and resettlement. Susana Adamo, an associate research scientist at CIESIN, contributed to the report.

Read the Study

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

Thank you for your very interesting article. I would like to add a few words on development-induced forced displacement.

The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 15 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 15 million people have been displaced by development each year.

Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

According to specialists, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.