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Environmentally-induced displacement. A global challenge

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Throughout history, environmental (not political) motivations have been a key catalyst for human migration. Progressive environmental change was one of the main causes of the spread of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens sapiens out of the African continent (the so-called theory of the African exodus). Changes occurring in the environment also contributed to the fall of great powers. Desertification of soils and deteriorating living conditions in Central Asia were the main cause of the Huns European invasion and resulting displacement of the Germanic tribes, leading eventually to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The volcanic eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE played a large role in the cultural formation of the Mediterranean. According to some hypotheses, it has led to the collapse of two great material cultures in this area: Cycladic and Minoan. In the absence of written sources from that era and with the difficulties involved in the analysis of archaeological material, it is difficult for us to estimate the scale of population movements caused by that disaster. According to current research, the volcanic eruption of Thera was the most powerful eruption in earth's history. It brought about the flooding of at least a few islands. Reverberation from this volcanic explosion circled the globe four times and the volcanic ash cloud may have remained over the Mediterranean Sea for years. The macro-social effects of such an explosion (such as agricultural repercussions) and the related migratory movements are potentially beyond measure. The drought (starting in ≈2200 BC) may have also initiated the collapse of the Egiptian Old Kingdom as well as the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. So-called “Sea Peoples Invasion” to Cyprus, Hatti and the Levant was de facto environemtally induced forced migration.

One of the first well-established references to disaster induced displacement was made by Pliny the Younger, who described the consequences of the outbreak of Vesuvius in 23 and 24 August 1979 CE. Three Roman cities (Pompeii, Stabiae, and Herculaneum) were destroyed. Tens of thousands of people died or were forced to flee. A letter to Tacitus by Pliny the Younger, preserved to this day, contains a vivid description of the emotions associated with natural disasters, characteristic even now, for the majority of people displaced due to natural disasters or evacuees. As Pliny wrote “You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices [...] Nor were we without people who magnified real dangers with fictitious horrors.” In modern times, major natural disasters are also a factor in mass displacement. As a result of the earthquake in China's Shaanxi Province in 1556, more than 830,000 people were killed and at least several million were forced to relocate. Floods and earthquakes in the last centuries were a major cause for migration within China (in the twentieth century alone, three major earthquakes in that country – in 1920, 1927, and 1976 – claimed nearly a million victims).

Reasons for changes in the environment have recently become an area of intense research. To date, however, it is difficult for the scientific community to achieve consensus in this regard. The answer to the question of to what extent environmental changes are the result of human activity is now a cornerstone of the dispute. According to currently dominant views, human activity is a major contributor to the imbalance of global habitats. The anthropogenic causes of environmental changes include, inter alia, the impact of greenhouse gases and particulate matter (so-called atmospheric aerosols). These are the result of aggressive industrialisation in many areas of the world. An equally important contributor to global environmental change is the destruction of tropical forests, which absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Among the favourable factors of climate change – those of a natural character – one can enumerate, among others: changes in the magnetic poles of the earth (a process which normally takes several thousand years); the dependence of land upon astronomical cycles (the so-called theory of Milutin Milanković cycles); changes in the solar constant (consisting of fluctuations in the solar power reaching the ground); and the impact of volcanic eruptions and seismic activity records. We should also remember that the effects of climate change can look very different in different parts of the globe. (For instance, “global warming” may actually be associated with a decrease in temperature in some places, such as in Europe.)

One serious threat behind current environmentally caused displacement includes a general rise in sea levels, caused by glacial melting. According to some researchers, ocean levels will increase over the next hundred years by more than 1 m. Rising water levels currently not represent a significant source of environmentally induced displacement, but in subsequent years may firmly gain strength. Areas below 10 meters above sea level constitute only two percent of the globe; however, as much as 10 percent of the world's population resides there. The first incidence of mass migration caused by a rise in sea level was the flooding in 1995 of Bangladesh's Bhola Island. As a result, half of the island is no longer fit to live on, and more than half a million people lost shelters. A similar problem can reach the inhabitansts of Carteret Islands, an atoll belonging to Papua New Guinea. Rising sea level may permanently displace at least 10 thousand residents of the archipelago. Can we prevent this kind of problems? In the case of Nigeria alone, a one-metre rise in ocean level could force more than 3.7 million people to migrate. (In the case of a two-metre rise, that figure could increase to 10 million.) Equally important related problems include the issues of changing climate zones, ocean currents, and monsoon activity, as well as the occurrence of tornadoes. Significant changes in the summer monsoon period affect the economic situation of many Asian countries.

Another cause of environmentally induced displacement is when soil becomes barren or desertified. In keeping with estimates made by international organisations, the process of desertification annually affects more than 6 million hectares in more than sixty countries around the world. According to UNEP estimations one quarter of the earth's land and more than 300 million people is threatened by desertification. A dwindling supply of drinking water presents a particularly high risk for the functioning of communities. In some areas of Africa (e.g. Sudan, Chad, and the Western Sahara), the distance of some settlements from their nearest water source amounts to tens of kilometres. Lack of water or its pollution is the cause of death of more than 40 thousand people a day. More than one billion inhabitants of our planet have no access to clean water sources and more than two and a half billion live in very poor sanitary conditions. Lack of water, coupled with the problem of hunger, is now one of the most common causes of internal migration in developing countries. Quite often, the situation results from ever-deteriorating environmental factors. As reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 962 million people are currently starving. Every five seconds, a child dies of hunger; in the span of just one day, this adds up to more than 20,000 victims of starvation.

Another major problem in recent years is the advancing salinity of freshwater basins. An additional reason for the growing scale of environmentally-induced displacement is the wasteful deforestation conducted in many countries, simetimes triggered by large development projects. This promotes the process of soil desertification (like that of China) or the loss of traditional farming in particular areas (especially in Latin America). A further key motivation for a change of residence constitutes an increased risk of flooding in such areas. The most vulnerable flood risk areas around the world include China's Grand Canal and the main river basins in Asia: Yangtze River, Yellow River, and Mekong. Still other common sources of environmentally induced displacement include earthquakes (along with the associated tsunami waves) and volcanic eruptions; sometimes the mere threat of these natural disasters presents cause enough for displacement. In the next portion of this section, the author will attempt to characterise the main stimuli for environmentally induced displacement in various regions of the world.

Africa remains the continent with by far one of the largest number of environmental forced migrants worldwide. The main causes of environmental displacement are land degradation and desertification, much less the natural disasters. Millions of potential displacees now live in the African Sahel region, where they escape from the northern areas as a result of drought and lack of access to drinking water. Many economically motivated migrations are de facto determined by worsening environmental conditions (North-South Migrations in Ghana). Currently, nearly 10 million people in the Sahel region are at risk of hunger. Tremendous problems surrounding water shortages and hunger are visible in the current territories of the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. In Nigeria, the rising levels of the Atlantic Ocean and the flooding of coastal islands present a major predicament. It is estimated that an increase of only 20 centimetres in the water level could deprive nearly eight hundred thousand inhabitants of their homes in this country. In many countries of the continent, the steady decline of soil quality towards barrenness and desertification is problematic. The desertification problem covers the whole of North Africa and many areas in other parts of the continent (such as Madagascar). Africa is highly affected by flood. According to Norwegian Refugee Council (2010, 2011) after 2008 we have witnessed at least 10 major floods in the region (mostly in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin).

Environmental displacement in Asia is determined by both gradual environmental processes, the consequences of human activities and natural disasters. Every year, floods lead to the temporary displacement of at least 8 million people. Growing cause of temporary displacement are also consequences of earthquakes in seismic areas (Turkey, Iran, Pakistan). Increasing soil salinity and desertification presents an environmental crisis in many regions of the continents. This characterises, among other places, extensive areas of southern China, Kazakhstan, the Iranian plateau, and the Aral Sea regions. Many times, the only solution to the steadily decreasing crops and increasingly limited grazing capacity caused by soil salinity is to move to other areas. Particularly important in recent years were population displacement from the area of South-East Asia instigated by the tsunami of December 2004. The great wave, induced by an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean, deprived over 230,000 people of their lives. As a result, many thousands of people in vulnerable areas (particularly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka) have decided to migrate to areas more distant from the coastline. The events of December 2004 also caused the displacement of over 1.5 million people in the six countries most affected by the tsunami.

Rising ocean levels are a major problem threatening the existence of some of the archipelagic states and many coastal areas of other countries. Particularly vulnerable to this process at present are the countries of the South Pacific and Oceania: Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua and New Guinea, Nauru, and the Republic of Maldives. In the past five years, nearly a third of Tuvalu Island's small population of 11 thousand have emigrated. A rise in sea levels of but one centimetre per year would cause a complete flooding of that country in less than fifty years. At the moment, especially high risks associated with the rise of the oceans are having a particular impact on the two archipelagic states of Western Polynesia: Tuvalu and Kiribati. According to UN forecasts, they may be completely inundated by the rising waters of the Pacific by 2050. (Since 1993, global sea levels have been rising at a rate of about 3.26 mm. per year.).

Based on: Bogumil Terminski, Towards Recognition and Protection of Forced Environmental Migrants in the Public International Law: Refugee or IDPs Umbrella, 2012.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Bogumil Terminski and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Bogumil Terminski