Special Year 2008 Look-Ahead: Environmental Refugees Grow in Numbers

December 19, 2007

The past few years have been tough on millions of people in the US and around the world who have been killed, driven from their homes, or deprived of their livelihoods by overwhelming environmental forces such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, and volcanoes.

The wrath of nature is nothing new. But it's been widely acknowledged in recent years that far more people are being affected. Climate change is now being recognized as a major contributing factor. Another major driving force, population skyrocketing to unprecedented levels, hasn't yet been as widely acknowledged, but it's forcing millions of people into ever more marginal and vulnerable areas.

With climate change likely to be on the front pages throughout 2008, the people affected by these disasters, usually called "environmental refugees" or something similar, will be significant stories, or will be an important thread in related stories. To give you a leg up on covering this throughout the year, we've dedicated the last TipSheet of 2007 to this issue.


Natural disasters, the vast majority climate-related, have increased more than four-fold in recent decades, says Oxfam International in its "Climate Alarm" report released Nov. 25, 2007. The numbers have risen from an average of 120 a year in the early 1980s to as many as 500 today. Flood and windstorm disasters alone have risen six-fold, from about 60 in 1980 to about 240 in 2006. The number of people affected annually by disasters of all types averaged 174 million from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, but jumped to 254 million from 1995 to 2004. In 2007, Asian floods alone affected about 250 million people (which is just a little less than the entire US population). Aside from the few headline-grabbing disasters, most are relatively small and don't draw much attention in their own right, but the cumulative effects can be severe.

In addition to all the destruction and disruption, about 45,000 people are killed worldwide each year by weather-related disasters, says the Christian advocacy group Tearfund in a Dec. 6, 2007, report.

Illustrating some of the uncertainties over these numbers, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies(IFRCRCS) says in its "World Disasters Report" released Dec. 13, 2007, that disasters of all types are now killing about 120,000 people per year, double the annual toll from a decade earlier. Reported costs for disasters are up about 12% from a decade earlier.

Along with the obvious short-term disasters, there are other inexorable forces that have strong potential to force temporary or permanent relocations to other areas. A few examples include long-term drought and desertification that destroy food and water sources; swarms of locusts that proliferate in the right conditions and consume critical crops; and intrusion of saltwater from rising oceans that ruins groundwater used for drinking and irrigation.

Other effects can be less obvious. For instance, hurricanes in Florida and the Gulf Coast and wildfires in the US West have been a leading cause of changes in insurance policies that make it much more difficult for people to live in previously acceptable areas.

Officials and activists in the refugee arena often make a distinction between people forced to move by political, economic, or environmental forces. But some people, such as biogeographer and author Jared Diamond, argue that in many settings, the three are inextricably tied. Shortages of basic natural resources such as food and water can underlie economic strife, and political actions in these areas are often designed to reduce the strife and acquire more resources, either locally or elsewhere. Diamond provides numerous examples in his books, such as "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies."

Another debate is over whether the correct term should be refugee or migrant, or even displacee. Some organizations prefer to use the term migrant, in order to avoid complications caused by legal terminology and common-use perceptions that affect how the term refugee is used. Others want to take advantage of the historical background of the term refugee to emphasize the importance of environmentally-driven problems.

Whatever the term, a common theme for applying the term environmental to the affected people is that it's typically used when an acute, natural, physical crisis is the cause; think floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis. However, some people consider those that have to be moved for projects such as dam construction to be environmental refugees. People fleeing the lands affected by the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant seldom are called environmental refugees, though a case might be made that they are.

Another key issue is whether refugees are temporary or permanent. This distinction influences the strategies used to cope with these situations, and that debate can be a part of stories before and after disasters.

Given all the variables in definitions, and the unpredictability of future environmental changes, it's not surprising that estimates for the number of environmental refugees in coming decades vary widely, from about 50 million to about 1 billion, or about one of every six people on the planet.

Also in this look-ahead issue: