Africa’s Climate Refugees

You might be interested in this Los Angeles Times report by journalist Edmund Sanders on “climate refugees” in Kenya and the Horn of Africa. “Africa is already home to one-third of the 42 million people worldwide uprooted by ethnic slaughter, despots and war,” he writes. “But experts say climate change is quietly driving Africa’s displacement crisis to new heights.”

Sanders discussed the situation with Oxford University Professor Norman Myers, who has predicted that by 2050 there will be more than 25 million climate-change refugees. Global warming will replace conflict and persecution as the chief cause of human displacement, Myers told him. Writes Sanders: “Africa would be heaviest hit because so many people’s livelihoods are dependent on farming and livestock. Many Africans use less water in a day than the average American uses to flush the toilet, so any further declines that might occur because of climate change could be life-threatening.” Myers gives Sanders a dire forecast: “Climate change is going to set back development and food production in sub-Saharan Africa at least a decade and perhaps two or three.”

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5 Responses to “Africa’s Climate Refugees”


  1. 1 Wong Kam Yiu 26/10/2009 at 11:33 am

    Indeed, we could only imagine that the effect of climate change on the poorest of the world will only get more severe in the coming decades ( since it takes a very long time to reverse the trend of climate change ). Therefore, I would like to make comments as to what we should do now such that we can reduce the harm done to the poorest to the minimal.

    In the article, climate change refugee was mentioned, which for one thing serves as a concrete evidence that climate change really has the ability and is already pushing people to the limit. While the initiative is good and can help temporarily sustain the lives of the people, it obviously does nothing to solve the core of the problem. And we can not expect money given to aid-organizations to “buy fish” for the poorest, instead of “teaching them how to fish”. We have no choice but to explore ways to deal with this challenge.

    The following are some suggestions:

    1. Helping villagers and villages create their own social security net.

    A development model that has been widely used is to get members of the same village to form some kind of alliance such that they will provide for security net for each other. So for example, the whole village will chip in some money and an independent council will be set up to decide whether or not to lend money to a family which are going through rough times ( e.g. sickness, death of family member, reduce in amount of harvest etc). The upside of this proposal is that it is very cost effective, but the down side is that it would be ineffective if the whole village experiences drought, which may be brought about since climate change would affect the whole region. Nevertheless, this is something that should be done, while we could think of something else to supplement.

    2. Transfering technology to the poorest.

    With our currently technology, we would be able to at least i)predict the temp change in poor regions and ii) give advice to the poor in growing more suitable crops for climate change. yes the world is growing hotter, but that does not mean that the whole world would no longer be suitable for growing all crops. What we could do now is give more scientific advice to governments of poor nations in telling them how climate change will affect the distribution of suitable farm lands in their country and what types of advice and assistance they can give to support their industry. The rich nations much give assistance not only for humanity sake but because allowing poor nations to fail in agriculture will also have adverse effects on the economy.

    3. Keep on giving aid. And strike an agreement more effective than the Kyoto Protocal.

    According to Peter Singer’s book “One World”, most rich nations are only giving less than 2% of their overall GDP as aid to developing countries. ( The US is only giving 1%) This is not going to be enough to cope with the problems the world is going to face. And if we can not change our government leaders mindset on assisting the poor and not just focusing on the narrowly defined “national interest” , we will not have sufficient resource to help the ones in need. Besides giving aid, rich countries must stop worsening the situation by reducing emmissions. I really hope that a new effective agreement can be striked asap.

  2. 2 Chan Pui Ki, Kiki 27/10/2009 at 9:45 am

    While climate change mitigation is urgently needed, such as through negotiating a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement, climate change adaptation in developing countries should be concurrently implemented.

    It is difficult to have constant mass exodus of “climate refugees”. In developing countries, victims may simply be reluctant to leave or unable to find alternative homes. Possibilities of living with the changing climate must be explored. Developed countries can transfer the technology to construct such infrastructure as sea walls to combat rising sea level or to adopt new farming methods to withstand extreme weather.

    Migration should be the last resort. “Climate refugees” pose challenge not only when they migrate, but also when they settle. Problems associated with refugee camps emerge. Refugees may not acclimatize but depend on aid. International institutions need to be prepared to handle this situation which will be more frequent.

    Equally important is a universal definition of “climate refugees”. Otherwise, countries may argue over their responsibilities when they refuse to acknowledge the existence of these refugees, and humanitarian crises may result just as the genocide in Rwanda continued due to the dispute over a precise definition of genocide.

  3. 3 Lau Wai Lun William 27/10/2009 at 4:11 pm

    I believe it is fact that The climate change is causing population displacement in the worn torn and poverty torn states of africa. I would like to respond to the first comment.

    The first Solution does not seem to remedy the problem. although it is understandable that a community made fund which is used to support each other in rough times is very supportive, emotionally helpful and seems to be a solution. However, the problem must be pin pointed. The problem now is that there are some parts of the world which are affected by droughts, floods and hurricanes. This is not a situation in which may be ameliorated by the mere providing of mechanisms and technology. It is the hand of nature which has fallen upon them, and this hand of nature is not divine, it is the result of developed countries, the emissions, the pollution, the wastage, etc. It is high time for the developed countries, G20, United Nations to implement legislation to restrict the amount of emissions which will result in the further dilapidation of the environment.
    I learnt from my humanity class that it is fine for one to exercise his right if that right has not incur a duty to another to accept it, or the society accepts that act. However, the continued exercising of the right to pollute the common pool resource, the atmosphere must stop now, as it is incurring a duty to the 3rd world country. This duty is not the mere acceptance of their pollution, but the toll is death.

    It is also indeed a fact that as a humanitarian duty, the developed world should provide technology to the African countries. It seems really presentable and sustainable on the face of it, but heed should be given to the past genetically modified props, how the Big Companies used different tactics to force the average farmer to leave. If it shall be the fact that technology should be provided, it has to be with great statutory obligations.

  4. 4 Kei Kit Lung 27/10/2009 at 7:41 pm

    By definition, climate refugees are the displaced people whose original settlements become not inhabitable due to environmental changes. The causes can include rising sea level, drought, flooding, typhoon, desertification etc. But it has become a greater concern now as global warning makes these causes more frequent.

    Climate refugee is a very good illustration that no countries can shrink their reasonability in protecting other countries and in combating global issues under the drive of globalization, as a crisis happens in one corner of the world would likely to spread to another. Nowadays, developed countries are often reluctant to help in fighting climate change as they claim it would hinder their economic development. However, a sudden influx of climate refugee is also a nightmare. Refugees would likely to generate social conflict, create social problems, and increase the burden of social services. And the urgency of this problem is not that remote, as studies have estimated that there would be more than 25 million environmental refugees by 2050. All countries are interconnected and interdependent now, and no one can remain unaffected as climate change progresses. These would-be costs in handling climate refugee provide legitimate reasons for developed countries to act now.

    Note also that the statutes of climate refugees have not yet been recognized in United Nations. Currently, refugees is defined in UN as a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. As Kiki said, the recognition of climate refugees and adopting a unified definition can avail the climate refugees a better protection.

  5. 5 Wong Kam Yiu 29/10/2009 at 8:48 pm

    Disagreeing with the above, I argue that we can not develop a universally accepted definition of “climate refugee”.

    Accroding to Article 1 of the Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol provides the definition of a refugee:

    “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”

    As of now, we recognize the above people as refugees and the international community in accordance to the Convention is vested with the responsiblity to provide certain amount of help to these people, for example letting them stay in their country or even grant citizenship.

    However, Climate refugee is very different and much more difficult to legalize as it is vastly interwoven with poverty. While we can give a relatively clear defintion to refugees, we can not do so for “climate refugee”. The three main barriers to achieving such definition:

    -How can you differentiate between people affected by climate change that is directly caused by Global warming but not like usual climate change that happens every year ? If you can’t, doesn’t that mean you will impose responsibility to countries every time a farmer says he/she had reduced harvest becoz of climate change? This responsiblilty would be endlessly big and there is no way such a definition would be adopted when you consider how countries are now even reluctant to give help to refugees that are already narrowly defined through the convention

    – How can you justify imposing responsiblity to countries to help climate refugees without imposing the same responsiblity to other people who are suffering from extreme poverty as well? How can you say that this group of people deserve help while the other group does not ?

    – How can you overcome sovereignty issues? When a countries people are hit by climate change and don’t hv enough crops to sustain life, how can you interfere with the relevant state’s policy and just intervene? It brings the discussion back to R2P, but there is a very high barrier in granting any country a right to intervene.

    These 3 questions are in my view impossible to solve under the instiution and culture of the political arena we are in today. Climate Refugee is a fancy word and idea, but we must consider the practical problems of implementing such an idea before we go on promoting it.


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