It's the year 2004. 70-year-old Tulsi Khara is one among millions of people displaced in Eastern India due to the frequent onslaught of cyclones and floods especially in the region in and around the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. She says, “We are not educated people, but I can sense something grave is happening around us. I couldn’t believe my eyes – the land that I had tilled for years, that fed me and my family for generations, has vanished. We have lost our livelihoods. All our belongings and cattle were swept away by cyclones. It wasn’t like this when I was young. Storms have become more intense than ever. Displacement and death are everywhere here. The land is shrinking and salty water gets into our fields, making them useless. We feel very insecure now.”
As global warming levels increase around the globe, Khara is not alone in her struggle against the pressing concerns of ecological damage. In 2018, about 28 million people were internally displaced from their homes. What is alarming is that over 60% of this migration was due to environmental disasters such as cyclones, floods and droughts. Climate scientists, environmentalists, and activists across the world are increasingly voicing their concern over this issue as the number of "climate refugees" is expected to climb to 200 million within the next 30 years. This translates to islands slowly disappearing under water, towns being ravaged by forest fires and agricultural land turning into barren fields as rising levels of carbon emissions continue to cause disruptions in global weather patterns.
Given the severity of the issue, one may be surprised to learn that international refugee law does not legally consider climate migrants as refugees as the decision to move is viewed as more of a choice than a necessity. This is also due to the fact that the climate crisis has historically caused more internal migration as opposed to cross-border migration. Every year, uninhabitable surroundings and loss of livelihoods due to severe environmental disasters force people to flee their homes and turn towards urban areas. These internal movements often go undocumented which is a major reason why we do not have any significant policy interventions to address this particular type of migration or the intersection of poverty, unemployment and climate change.
While governments and corporations attempt to find middle ground between climate change and economic growth, local communities have started to take matters into their own hands. One such example is the "Great Green Wall" initiative in Senegal, an African country on the Western brink of the Sahara Desert. High temperatures have triggered a slow but steady expansion of the Sahara, putting locals at risk of displacement due to water shortages and the resultant levels of low agricultural yields. However, local communities came up with a clever solution to this problem...together they planted a 4,000-mile-long wall of drought resistant acacia trees that stopped further desertification by preventing the continued erosion of topsoil in the area. It is indeed encouraging to see similar community reforestation projects slowly sprouting up in other parts of the globe as they stand as a strong testament to the positive change that individuals and communities are capable of. As is obvious, the solution to the migration problem is a multi-layered one which would include gathering data on climate migration hotspots and documenting the flow of population. But just like the other offshoots of climate change, the best approach would start with creating awareness and acknowledging the issue to prompt communities across the world to take ownership and initiative to protect the environment in whatever way they can.
Written by Ritika Sowda
The Climate & Migration Coalition, “Migration stories from the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta”.
Down to Earth, “Migration out of climate change”, May 2020. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/migration-out-of-climate-change-71291.
United Nations University, “5 facts on climate migrants”, November 2015. https://ehs.unu.edu/news/news/5-facts-on-climate-migrants.html
The Great Green Wall, https://www.greatgreenwall.org/about-great-green-wall