143 Million Climate Refugees by 2050

A World Bank report: Groundswell, warns of the worsening impact of climate change in three regions of the world.  It could lead to a tremendous humanitarian crisis says Kanta Kumari Rigaud, the lead author of the study

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

When we think of refugees, we often think of those who are fleeing conflict and war. Climate refugees fleeing drought due to rising temperatures, flooding, mudslides, are often not foremost on our mind. The rising global temperatures we are experiencing today alone will cause water scarcity, crop failure, and rising sea levels. These consequences, in turn, will force people to flee their homes, to look for better places to live.

A recent World Bank study titled “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration” tries to quantify and assess the extent of migration that climate change will cause. According to the study, up to 143 million people will become internally displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by the year 2050. Joining me now to discuss the World Bank study is Kanta Kumari Rigaud, the lead author of the study. She is the lead environmental specialist at the World Bank Group. Thanks for joining us, Kanta.

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Thank you, Sharmini. It’s a pleasure to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Kanta, let’s start with what triggered this research study. Often researchers observe a pattern or a set of data that they base their hypotheses on. So how did you decide to do this particular study?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Thank you, Sharmini. This is an important question. In addressing climate change, we’re looking, really, at climate risk both in the current context and in the future context. One of the phenomena that we see quite frequently is the increasing number of people who are displaced as a consequence of extreme events.

But what is much less understood is what are the impacts of the slow-onset climate change, and how will this unfold and impact on the mobility of people? And this is really one of the motivating factors to look forward and look ahead, and see to what extent people will be forced to move as a consequence of climate change.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, you said something very important, which is the slow onset of climate change. So then, how did you observe that? Was there a pattern in which climate is changing, and people were not adopting, and then it got to a certain crisis point at which people started to move?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: That’s, that’s a good point. What we have currently is we have a huge number of extreme events. We had the hurricanes, Maria and others, where you see a fair amount of displacement. And that’s what the media picks up, and it’s really important, because people are displaced. But what is sometimes not in the public eye is where you have a sort of slow, persistent climate impacts that bearing down on people, and where ultimately they do get up and go.

And this really relates to three types of slow onset that this study looked at. We looked at the impacts of water stress, water availability between now and 2015. We also looked at changes in crop productivity and crop yields. And lastly, we looked at the third one, which is the impacts from sea level rise, augmented by storm surges, which reduce the habitability. So we think that these three slow onsets in particular can undermine the viability of areas and livelihoods, and as a consequence have people moving.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. All right, Kanta, then could you highlight for us the most important trends and findings from your study?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: This study is one of its kind. It’s really one of the most comprehensive to date which has looked at the scale of climate migration, you know, induced by slow-onset impacts. And what we did is we looked to try to understand what is this potential scale of movement between now and 2050? And we did this through a focus on three regions. We looked at sub-Saharan Africa, we looked at South Asia, and we looked at Latin America. The intent here was to understand how this pattern changed, what will be the trend, and the trajectory.

The most important finding that this study has, has sort of delivered, is that there will be 143 million climate migrants by 2050 as a consequence of slow-onset climate change within these three regions. But beyond that big number, what you find is that the numbers are different for different regions. In sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest of the region, you know, we will have 86 million climate migrants. In South Asia we will have 40 million climate migrants. And in Latin America, 17 million climate migrants. But beyond this number, what is important is the trajectory. We did sort of a deeper dive within sub-Saharan Africa, for East Africa. And here you find for East Africa the numbers would increase threefold over this time period, compared to South Asia, where the numbers would increase sixfold. Latin America, which is a more developed region and a middle-income region, the numbers would increase twofold.

So you find there is a differentiation in the trends driven largely by the way climate impacts will play out. The third metric, which is critically important, is that of hot spots. What we find is that not all geographies are the same, and there are some areas that are going to become less viable, and their livelihoods will be more difficult to carve out. And as a consequence of the water stress and losses in crop productivity, you will find people moving out of. So what the study really found is that the intensity, the number, and the size of these climate in-migration and climate out-migration hotspots would increase. And for example, in Bangladesh, you know, obviously coastal areas like Dhaka are going to be climate migration hotspots. And rain-fed areas, where [inaudible] and sort of the agricultural rain-fed areas are, those will be climate out-migration hotspots. People are moving out of those areas. So really looking at this differentiation of how climate impacts plays out is an important part of how these slow-onset factors are going to interact with the landscape and livelihoods and mobility.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Kanta, now, I notice that this study focused in on internal migration, and not necessarily cross-border migration. Why did you focus in on internal migration?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Sharmini, what I think is a little-known fact is that globally there are three times more people that actually move within countries as opposed to across borders. And the numbers globally are about 750 million people more internally, versus 250, about 200-plus that move across borders. Clearly these are not all climate migrants. These are economic migrants, social migrants, sometimes in political cases. But the reality is that a lot more people move within their countries.

And what this study did was to isolate out the increment of how many people would move as a consequence of climate change. And what I think we will able to show is that climate change is emerging as a potent driver of that movement, particularly the slow-onset drivers that we focused on. But looking at migration, one needs to look at its totality, but I think we were able to show that climate change is an important and potent driver of that movement right now.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, in another interview that you had done, when you spoke about the study, you indicated that one of the missions of the World Bank is to actually address and alleviate poverty. Now, the findings of your study, how does it help alleviate poverty, and what policy changes must be put in place, both in terms of the World Bank and other international agencies, to ensure that this issue of climate migration is addressed?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Absolutely. I think understanding the scale, the nature, the trajectory, and the patterns of mobility and migration in a development context is absolutely important. It must, however, be cast in the larger context. So one of the things that we looked at in developing this scenario is understanding between 2020 and 2050, what is particularly that demographic change?

Take Ethiopia, for example. It’s a country that has 102 million people today. Under the scenarios that we look at, it could have a population anywhere between 165-185. And that’s almost a doubling of that population within this time period. What I think that the study reveals is that the population distribution obviously will change, and that there is an increment that will be driven by climate change.

So when you recognize that the way in which agriculture productivity would be stressed and the water availability stressed, then clearly I think one begins to need to look at those trajectories. It is a country, Ethiopia, with a huge number of young people, and that youth bulge is only likely to grow. So a country that has about 60-70 percent of the people relying on agriculture today now, and that agriculture becomes more and more challenged in the future. It really calls upon us as a development institution and as a community at large working with the government to look at this issue. Now, Ethiopia is taking this very seriously. They have themselves in their plans, in their green growth economy, looked at wanting to decrease their reliance on agriculture. So I think this kind of analysis brings additional information to the scenarios that we are able to develop, to bring that into the discourse and response and development planning.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, is one of your recommendations, perhaps, to the World Bank and other international agencies, is to assist people in that relocation and getting settled in another home, for all of these millions of refugees that are in flow?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Well, I think the study really sets out three major recommendations that really have to be looked at together. The first is because we’re saying climate is an important driver of migration, and that’s because of the climate impacts on the landscapes, and on the livelihoods and the kind of impacts that climate change will have.

The first recommendation that we’re making is that of cutting greenhouse gases. As we showed in the study, the lower-emission scenario clearly has less climate impacts, and by corollary, less climate mobility or climate-induced migration. So that, I think, is the first course of action. But in the second, we also argue for the fact that we need to bring in climate migration into that development planning process. And I know you talked about relocation, but clearly we need to look at this migration at three levels.

The first is to really help people to adapt in place, because there’s a lot that we can do to really increase their resilience, increase their livelihoods, give them livelihood diversification, so that they don’t really feel those impacts of climate change as onerously as they would, or have that distress factor. So the first thing is helping true development and other processes to adapt in place.

SHARMINI PERIES: So are you-. Excuse me for interrupting you there, I know you are on a flow. But then are you thinking of ways in which people would receive water, dams, for example, for water flow, irrigation and so forth?

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Absolutely. There are lots of good adaptation measures that we can put in place. Sometimes it’s about having more drought-tolerant varieties, it’s having sort of more efficient agricultural techniques, and water drip irrigation. So there are a host of things, including social protection measures, that when that extreme event does strike that they have some kind of a social safety net that they can fall back on. So I think we really have these kind of instruments and things that we already do, but we need to bring them sort of in a more concerted fashion to help communities who are particularly exposed to this type of risk.

But there are going to be situations where clearly the adapt in place will not work. Take, for example, in Bangladesh, in some of the coastal areas, where ultimately there may, there will need to be some kind of retreat. In fact, in Bangladesh, you have also maladaptation, where people are in place in some of these coastal areas which have saline intrusion, and there are health consequences. But they are being in place because they’re able to receive remittances. Well, this is one one kind of maladaptation. But there will be times when you really have to recede and help communities to relocate.

And here I think what you have is you need to enable that mobility to happen so that what happens is not a distress mechanism, distressed migration. We interviewed in a real situation here a young lady called Monoara Khatun from Bangladesh, and she told us the story of how she moved to Dhaka as a consequence of the flooding.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Kanta, I thank you so much for joining us today, and at least giving us a peek at the big research study you’ve done. I urge everyone to have a look at it. We will provide a link below the player here for anyone else who is interested in looking into this issue further. But for now I thank you so much for joining us, and I wish you all the best in getting the word out in terms of your report, “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration.” I thank you so much for joining us today.

KANTA KUMARI RIGAUD: Thank you. Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.