Changes in climate conditions lead to harsher weather phenomena. Source: Getty Images/AFP
Climate changes and extreme weather conditions are nowadays a reality. Phenomena like heat waves, wildfires, floods, coastal erosion, and droughts feature the headlines almost daily. This has severe consequences for the communities living in the world’s most affected regions as people’s lives are affected economically, socially, and physically. In some cases, relocating seems the only viable solution.
This is what “Climigration” is about: the deliberate relocation of entire communities to safer regions. This phenomenon is already happening and attracting many researchers to study the overall process and find the best possible solutions and good practices.
A study carried out in 2014 by the United Nations Refugee Agency clarifies the definition of a planned relocation. Accordingly, planned relocation is a state-led, problem-solving measure in which a community — as opposed to an individual or household — is physically relocated and resettled in a new area. Following evacuations, planned relocation may play a part in situations when the places of origin are no longer habitable, and an ongoing presence in the evacuation location is not practicable.
Evacuation, strictly related to planned relocation, is the quick physical relocation of people away from the immediate threat or impact of a hazard to a safer place in times of urgency where risk is imminent. The goal is to get people to a safe and secure location as rapidly as possible. It is usually defined by a short timeframe — hours to weeks — in which emergency actions must be implemented to save lives and minimize harm and can be required, recommended, or spontaneous.
In climigration, the support of the affected communities is crucial as relocation is not a lighthearted decision for many people. As consensus builds social capital, this encourages action and increases the likelihood of a positive outcome. Another critical factor is how people perceive the timing and intensity of hazards. Risks that are immediate and visible are more likely to prompt action. If dangers are viewed as an issue for the distant future, motivation may be low, even if the consequences may be catastrophic. In this regard, communities’ capacity to confront the realities of displacement and resettle can be improved by solid local leadership. Outside strategic leadership is a supplement to local leadership, not a replacement.
A study published in 2018 examined three previous cases of migration owing to natural, environmental, and severely detrimental and life-threatening events where lack of support from the affected communities represented the main hindrance. In the case of the earthquakes in Peru, Turkey, Iran, and Guatemala, relocations were much more challenging to implement than disaster management practices. This happened because the communities involved tended to resist external decisions made without their consent. The second case occurred in Picher, Oklahoma, due to severe chemical poisoning of their groundwater, where another scheduled relocation was planned. The choice to move caused a rift in the community. A pro-evacuation organization suggested a federal buyout, citing major environmental and health issues as reasons for relocation. At the same time, opponents argued that the grounds were exaggerated and focused instead on the town’s cultural loss. The third incidence occurred in three Alaskan villages where the viability of living in their current position was endangered by extreme weather and climate-related coastline erosion. According to the research, the lack of overarching institutional frameworks produced obstacles such as legal concerns surrounding the land acquisition, funding for new infrastructure, and selecting desirable and cultural areas to relocate to.
According to Sanj Srikanthan, CEO of the international organization ShelterBox, which delivers supplies to those affected by conflict and natural disasters, around 11 million people have lost their houses each year due to extreme weather during the last five years. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre data showed that annual numbers increased from 7.5 million in 2017 to 14.6 million in 2020 before declining to 11.5 million in 2021. The CEO provides a calculation of the expected number of displaced people. He claims that if these figures are projected over the next 20 years, roughly 200 million people will lose their homes. He adds that this figure is conservative as it is on the rise and that new and more efficient mechanisms will be required to tackle future problems.
A World Bank analysis similarly concluded that unless quick action is taken to reduce global emissions and close the development gap. Climate change might force more than 200 million people to leave their homes, creating migration hotspots in the next three decades. The report looks at how slow-onset climate change, like water scarcity, reduced crop production, and sea-level rise, could result in millions of “climate migrants” by 2050. This would happen under three alternative scenarios with varying climate action and development degrees. Under the most pessimistic scenario, up to 216 million people will be forced to migrate to their own countries due to high emissions and unequal growth.
As climate changes visibly worsen, more cooperation is warranted within the international community. However, the recent events connected to the war in Ukraine and several other conflicts worldwide show a clear prioritization of geopolitical rivalries at the expense of the environment. As cooperation between Moscow, Washington, and Beijing has been halted, the prognoses highlighted by several studies on the increase of climigration are likely to come true. Once again, it seems that military competition will take the lead over environmental issues for the years to come.
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