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Is Climate Change Creating More Environmental Refugees than War in Africa?


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The term ‘environmental refugees' is defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as "those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/ or seriously affected the quality of their life". ‘Environmental disruption' means any physical, chemical, biological changes in the ecosystem/resource base that render it temporarily/permanently, unsuitable to support human life.

Climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats that humanity may ever face. The impact of climate change on livelihoods is creating a new kind of casualty: environmental refugees. Rising sea levels, desertification, weather-induced flooding, and frequent natural disasters have become a major cause of population displacement. This is an issue of concern as it is a drawback in efforts of enhancing human security.


According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees worldwide grew from 9.9 million in 2007 to 11.4 million in 2008. The same report identifies climate change as one of the leading causes of the global rise in refugees, along with conflict. The International Red Cross concurs that climate change disasters are now a bigger cause of population displacement than war.

According to yet another report by the United Nations University, in 2009, there were about 19.2 million people officially recognized as "persons of concern" - people who are likely to be displaced because of environmental disasters. This figure is projected to grow to about 50 million by the end of 2010. The fear by scholars at the United Nations University, "that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change," is now a reality in Africa. If the reports by the International Red Cross are taken into account, there are currently more environmental refugees than refugees displaced by war in Africa.


Failed and unpredictable rains are more regular as raining seasons shorten due to the influence of climate change. Droughts have increased from once a decade to one every two or three years. For pastoralist communities, forced migrations in search of water and pasture have exacerbated resource based conflicts.

By 2009, a severe, persistent five year drought stretched across East Africa exerting a heavy human toll, made worse by violent conflict. The worst affected countries were Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda. Other countries hit were Sudan, Djibouti and Tanzania. Almost 20 million people in East Africa became dependent on food assistance. Somalia was struck by the double blow of escalating hunger and civil war. More than 4 million people were in need of humanitarian aid.

In 2000, south-eastern Africa was devasted by heavy rains that began in January. In February, cyclone Eline swept across Madagascar and south-eastern Africa, bringing the worst flooding in decades. Then came cyclone Gloria. By March, they had left at least 800 people dead and disrupted the lives of over 2.5 million people in Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mozambique was hardest hit with almost 1 million loosing their homes.

In 2007, West Africa experienced some of its worst floods in ten years. According to UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 500,000 people were affected by heavy rains and floods in 18 countries. Togo, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, and Mali were hardest hit. Floods devasted East and Central Africa around the same time too.

Landslides and mudslides have forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes in Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda since the beginning of the century. These occur mostly during the rainy season and are accelerated by flooding. In May this year, it was estimated that more than 50 people were killed and about 5,000 people affected by a landslide due to heavy rains on the slopes of the Nyiragongo volcano in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Early this year, 600 people were displaced when a mudslide occurred in Kittony village in north western Kenya.

Climate change could trigger the growth of deserts in southern Africa, not to mention that desertification is likely to increase around the Sahara, causing populations to move. A report published in the Nature journal recently predicts that as greenhouse gases fuel global warming, the dunes of the Kalahari could begin to spread. By 2099, shifting sands could be blowing across huge tracts of land in Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe and western Zambia.

It emerges that environmental refugees are caught up in a vicious circle in which all involved facets negatively reinforce one another. Taking into account the case of East Africa, the worst affected communities by floods are the same vulnerable ones that were previously worst hit by drought. Moreover, an expanding population in a drought-stricken area can further strain resources that may be monopolized under political turmoil, upon which refugees streaming out of a country may exert pressure on the host country that then creates international conflicts between sending and receiving nations.

It is of importance that this category of refugees finds a place in international agreements. Further, governments need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations. This should be done taking into consideration the needs of women and children who are likely to be hardest hit by impacts of climate change.

As the climate change debate rages on, we should understand the fact that it affects livelihoods that depend on the natural environment, which, in Africa, means nearly everyone. There is therefore the need for African governments and the international community to join forces to create and carry out an effective strategy to curb the effects of climate change and manage natural resources more efficiently. If this is addressed, it may help to reverse population displacements and stem the rising tide of refugees.

Written by: Rose Mwebaza, Senior Legal Advisor & Damaris E. Mateche, Intern Environmental Security Programme, Nairobi



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