Peter Gorrie, Toronto Star, Dec. 15. 2006
Canada and other wealthy nations should prepare for a flood of environmental refugees, and treat them the same as those who flee political danger, international experts say.
The number of people fleeing the spread of deserts or climate-change impacts such as drought and flooding is likely to hit 50 million within a decade and soar to between 135 million and 200 million by 2050, Zafar Adeel, a director of the United Nations University, said in an interview yesterday from Frankfurt, Germany while en route to a conference on the issue in Algiers, Algeria.
“Regardless of what the exact number is,” it will swamp the current global total of 19 million refugees from war, genocide and all other threats, said Adeel, who heads the university’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health, based in Hamilton.
While the problem grows, support for solutions is falling, he said. Funding for the UN’s land-degradation program, which is already inadequate, dropped by 15 per cent this year.
The issue will be the focus of the three-day conference, which opens Sunday. The Canadian International Development Agency is a major sponsor of the conference, which also has funding from Belgium, Iceland and several international and UN agencies.
The main current problem is the spread of deserts, both because Earth’s climate is warming and because impoverished people in dry areas are denuding the land for cooking fuel.
Poverty and climate change impacts feed on each other, Adeel said. For example, once land is cleared of vegetation, it reflects more of the sun’s heat into the atmosphere, warming the climate. That, in turn, increases the spread of areas too dry to support vegetation.
“We have a poor sense of how fast it’s happening, but current estimates are that 200 million people now live in desertified areas,” Adeel said. Some 2 billion live in dry areas threatened with becoming desert.
With every rise of 1 degree Celsius in average temperature, the boundary of such parched areas expands by another 200 kilometres, he said.
As well, storms and rising sea level caused by climate change threaten people on low-lying islands and coastlines.
The ideal solution is to create conditions where people can stay in their home areas, but that’s virtually impossible in some parts of the world, the experts say. That means developed countries must prepare for a new class of refugee, which first involves figuring out exactly who they are — a difficult chore since poverty and environment are so entwined.
A 1951 United Nations convention defines refugees as those who flee or are forced from their country, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Refugees who — in the eyes of the country they apply to enter — don’t fit that definition are considered economic migrants and usually rejected.
No government is dealing with this new form of migration, said Janos Bogardi, director of the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, based in Bonn, Germany.
That must change, he said. UN agencies and the Red Cross say they’re already helping environmental refugees, “but on an ad hoc and humanitarian basis, without the means to do so on a large scale.
“It’s a grey area,” he said. While awaiting a proper definition, a rule of thumb might be that single, young males tend to be economic migrants. When entire families flee, it’s likely because they can no longer survive in their home country.
“Land degradation and desertification is a fact of life,” he said.
Replanting vegetation, providing renewable energy sources such as solar power, and developing eco-tourism and other industries might help. So would combating climate change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Still, even with urgent action, “some areas … won’t be habitable any more. People will have to leave, and they’ll need the same help as political refugees.”
Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are likely targets, he said.