[copy] Displaced: a dearth of policy as millions relocate due to climate change

Opinion by Sophie Stuber
April 24, 2018, 12:42 a.m.

Between the years 2008 and 2015, approximately 22.5 million people have been forced to relocate — temporarily or permanently — due to climate and other “weather-related” disasters. There are estimates that by 2050, the number of persons displaced due to climate may eclipse the number of “traditional” refugees as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

Despite this, there currently is no international consensus on how to aid persons displaced due to climate change. Though the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are aware of the increasing severity of climate change and migration challenges, these organizations have not issued clear recommendations or policies to address these issues.

Abnormally hot and cold weather in agricultural nations is already contributing to a rise in asylum requests in the European Union (EU) from citizens of the affected nations. A recent study by Wolfram Schlenker and Anouch Missirian concluded that the growth in asylum applications could be fully attributed to “temperatures in maize-growing countries that hit during the growing season, in the area where crops are grown.”

Schlenker and Missirian also created models for predictions of future effects of climate change in agricultural regions. If the average temperature rises by 2 degrees Celsius, the EU will likely see approximately a 28 percent increase in asylum applications. However, if carbon pollution rises at its current projected rates, annual application rates could grow by 188 percent by 2070. In gross numbers, this would translate to over 650,000 asylum applications in the EU per year.

Forced displacement due to climate change is a nuanced threat, as the effects of climate change manifest themselves through a multitude of environmental alterations. It is likely that climate change will contribute to environmental challenges, such as increased drought, rising sea levels and more severe natural disasters. Each of these may require a different international response.

Water scarcity: the Sahel

The Sahel comprises the semiarid area in Africa between the southern rainforest and the arid north. And though rainfall patterns and temperature are often capricious, the region is experiencing drought and rainfall patterns out of the ordinary.

Historically, Lake Chad has been essential for the survival of people in the Sahel. As Ben Taub writes in his article for The New Yorker, “Lake Chad is the principal life source of the Sahel.” Taub also adds, “The lake used to give the islanders everything: they ate from it, drank from it, and built houses from its reeds.”

However, Lake Chad began receding in the 1970s, a phenomenon that scholars and scientists have recently begun to label as a phenomenon of climate change.  In the past 30 years, average temperatures in the Sahel have risen between 0.2 and 2.0 degrees Celsius, and rainfall levels have decreased across the north and south. The Sahel desert is growing in size as Lake Chad gradually disappears, and water sources are becoming more difficult to find.

The effects of the drought on Lake Chad are severe and potentially permanent. Though the giant lake used to fill roughly the same area as the state of New Jersey, today, it is less than 5 percent of its original size — a little over twice the size of Lake Tahoe. Desertification has claimed most of the northern basin.

Furthermore, according to the U.N., the Sahel’s population has doubled over the last several decades and is predicted to double again in the next 20 years. The growing population places stress on essential environmental resources such as food and water. Repeated drought, severe chronic food insecurity and shrinking average precipitation levels contribute to these scarcities. The impacts of drought and lower rainfall cause a decrease in tree species diversity and density, as well as more common water shortages and higher cases of malaria and diarrhea.

Climate change is predicted to cause higher levels of food scarcity. This could lead to severe food stress for approximately 50 percent of the total population of 60 million people in the Sahel. Research projections show that climate change and continued water scarcity will cause the Sahel to accumulate approximately 250 million tons of food deficits by 2020.

Historically, famine has been a principal driver of mass migration in the Sahel region, but now, as John Grolle writes, “Food insecurity had evolved into a chronic state, as evinced by the incorporation into everyday livelihood systems of village-level strategies that had been used only during famines (for example, sale of wild food plants, fodder, firewood).”

Historically, family migration to the savanna has been a vital survival tactic for the agrarian Sahelian people, and the savanna has been a haven for families who need to resettle due to drought or famine. However, today, there is evidence that these movements are less successful than they have been in the past because the savanna is close to its resource capacity.

Indeed, in Niger, famine can no longer be classified as a distinct crisis, and in nearby Ghana, there are higher levels of progressive rural-rural migration within the country. Chronic food insecurity is one of the driving factors behind this movement of people.

In response to increased threats of climate change and lower feasibility of migration, scholars are studying adaptation techniques in the Sahel. However, though populations in the Sahel have recently put more energy into adaptation efforts, there has not been an official governmental overhaul in any country. Many of the countries in the region lack strong central governments, so adaptation implementations face even greater challenges. There are few disaster plans or streamlined processes. In the immediate future, governmental bodies and international organizations should focus on raising awareness about climate change and water scarcity. Awareness will educate people about both the origins and effects of desertification.

Solomon Islands: surging seas and relocation

In the past two decades, the rates of rising sea levels in the Solomon Islands rank as some of the most rapid in the world, with an average increase of between 7–10 millimeters annually. Throughout the northern Solomon Islands, over 11 islands have either disappeared entirely or are undergoing rapid erosion.

On Taro Island, the capital province became the first town in the Pacific forced to plan relocation due to climate change. This effort to move the approximately 1,000 residents has been taking shape over the past 20 years.

There are challenges to the planned relocation of an entire town. For example, the government can only build on small pieces of state-owned or official registered land. The only land that fits this formally registered qualification near Taro is next to a mangrove swamp. Thus, the relocation requires complex planning so that the new capital will be able to survive future challenges of climate change.

Though the government of the Solomon Islands acknowledges that planned climate relocation efforts are a vital interest because of rising sea levels and the threat of tsunamis, there is no existing policy or legislative action in place to oversee relocations. There is also the threat that government-ordered relocation efforts can disrupt traditional community structures.

This was enumerated by Simon Albert and others in a recent article in the journal Regional Environmental Change. The authors write: “Investigation of previous resettlement schemes within the Solomon Islands suggests that relocation must be considerate and cohesive with local communities’ traditional needs.”

Jakarta: sinking city

Jakarta is a showcase of what can happen when metropolises are threatened by climate change. Through a combination of factors including rising sea levels and sinking land, Jakarta could be submerged in 10 years.

However, because there is not yet much accessible data in Jakarta on the shifts in factors such as air temperature, higher sea levels and the societal effects of climate change, it is hard to evaluate the impacts. Furthermore, though private organizations and government bodies are both developing strategies to respond to climate change, there is no collaboration between the two.

One thing is certain, though: Jakarta is sinking. This phenomenon is known as land subsidence. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines land subsidence as “a gradual settling or sudden sinking of the Earth’s surface owing to subsurface movement of earth materials.”

In recent years, the severity and prevalence of flooding events in Jakarta have increased due to land subsidence. Rising sea levels have exacerbated the problem. Residents are illegally digging wells that are slowly draining the aquifers below the city, making the sinking issue worse.

In an article for The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman explains the destruction in Jakarta.

“Jakartan developers and others illegally dig untold numbers of wells because water is piped to less than half the population at what published reports say are extortionate costs by private companies awarded government concessions,” he writes.

From 2011 to 2014, groundwater extraction in Jakarta rose by 24 percent and is projected to keep increasing. Additionally, land subsidence created greater vulnerability to both inland and coastal flooding. Rivers and canals near the city have sunk so much that they no longer flow to the ocean by gravity alone. Instead, pumps are necessary to drain the river.

Kimmelman writes: “In fact, Jakarta is sinking faster than any other big city on the planet, faster, even, than climate change is causing the sea to rise — so surreally fast that rivers sometimes flow upstream, ordinary rains regularly swamp neighborhoods and buildings slowly disappear underground, swallowed by the earth.”

According to hydrologists, northern Jakarta will be underwater in a decade if it does not take action to stop the sinking, which would damage a large portion of Indonesia’s economy. Unless there is serious reversal and a technological transformation in infrastructure, Jakarta will not be able to hold back rising river and sea levels.

Extreme flooding is expected to increase in frequency as a result of climate change and land use practices. The U.N.’s  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that coastal flooding will occur even more often because of rising sea levels and greater intensity cyclones as a result of climate change combined with population growth and land subsidence.

However, there are governmental plans to attenuate the risks of flooding. Three years ago, the Indonesian government partnered with Dutch officials to undertake the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) program to design dikes to barricade Jakarta from rising sea levels. The collaborative project is projected to cost about $40 billion. The proposed seawall would be 32 kilometers in length and is designed in the shape of the Garuda bird, Indonesia’s national emblem. With this wall, Jakarta Bay would transform into two “fresh-water retention lakes.” The seawall would also be a toll road that could improve traffic circulation to alleviate Jakarta’s terrible congestion. Behind the seawall, private developers plan to create 17 artificial islands that could house around 1.5 million people.

However, the future of the project is unclear due to concerns about environmental damage and destruction of the fishing industry, as well as accusations of corruption. Jakartan officials are no longer convinced that the megadistrict is feasible. Though the construction of the dike is moving forward, many experts are critical of the project.

Kimmelman writes: “As environmentalists have pointed out, if the city doesn’t first clean up its rivers and canals, a dike will turn an enclosed Jakarta Bay into the world’s largest cesspool.”

The success of the NCICD plan is heavily dependent on the success of other projects, such as cleaning up the city’s septic drainage systems. Currently, aside from the megacity, there is no government plan to address these challenges that would preclude the district. For now, citizens and government officials remain paralyzed while the city sinks and sea levels rise.   


Though predicting the effects of climate change is inherently complicated, climate change already poses a challenge to international norms and security. In an interview, Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, the chair of the Global Military Advisory Council on climate change, stated, “Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century.”

Rising sea levels, drought and shifting weather patterns are slow-building crises, but they have serious implications for the affected populations. Already, the Solomon Islands plans to entirely relocate a major village, and this is just the first. The Maldives is projected to disappear entirely due to rising sea levels. Jakarta, a major city center, could be submerged in 10 years. On the other end of the spectrum, drought and continued water scarcity have disrupted traditional migration patterns for villagers in the Sahel. Across the world, populations are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Where will these people go?

The international community must develop strategies that both address the root causes of climate change and offer response solutions, including local adaptation strategies and an asylum framework for persons displaced due to climate change. Poorer, developing countries will likely experience the effects of climate change earlier and at a greater magnitude. The irony is that it is powerful, developed nations that have chiefly contributed to manmade climate change. Should larger, wealthier countries accept responsibility for climate change and offer support to the nations most affected? It is a difficult concept to sell internationally, and it would be challenging to implement and enforce such an international and comprehensive reparations system. Yet, as climate change worsens and displaced populations grow, the moral dilemma is increasingly important to consider.

Contact Sophie Stuber at [email protected].


Sophie Stuber is a senior from Aspen, Colorado, studying International Relations, French and Creative Writing. Sophie has written for the Daily since freshman year . This year, she spends a significant portion of her time working on her thesis, which is about designing an international legal framework to aid people forcibly displaced due to climate change. Aside from academics, Sophie loves reading, writing short stories, listening to NPR, and adventuring outside. Any of her friends will tell you that she loves to talk about the mountains, skiing, Atlantic articles, and Rebecca Solnit essays.

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