Environmental Refugees: U.S. and World Examples

December 19, 2007


In addition to hundreds of thousands of post-Katrina and -Rita refugees, many of whom are expected never to return, there have been thousands of environmental refugees in the US in recent years.

  • Florida was rocked by four major hurricanes in just a month and a half in 2004. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne damaged 20% of homes in the state. Some people are still rebuilding, but others have left, sometimes due to concerns about living in a vulnerable area, or because they can't get insurance.
  • Wildfires in southern California in the fall of 2007 were just some of the fires in the West in recent years that have been forcing many people to move at least temporarily. Some are trying to return and rebuild, though they'll likely pay far more for insurance, if they can get it.
  • Residents of an estimated 200 or so Alaskan villages are being forced to move, unable to live in their historic settings where shores are fast crumbling under encroaching waves, land is sinking as the permafrost melts, and availability of firewood and historic food sources is changing.
  • Massive flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins through much of 1993 drove many people from their homes. There was some encouragement to relocate many towns and cities to prevent future disasters, but only a few residents pursued that option. By some measures, this flooding surpassed that of the 1927 inundations along the Mississippi River, which also triggered a large-scale exodus by some.
  • Tornadoes in the Great Plains continue to wreak havoc. In just one example, a powerful tornado completely destroyed the town of Greensburg, KS, and severely damaged surrounding areas on May 5, 2007. Afterward, some people said they'd never return, though others are trying to rebuild.
  • For several decades, the Great Plains have been losing population, as fewer people choose to challenge natural forces such as drought, extreme temperature changes, ice storms, and tornadoes and other high winds. Over time, even some old-timers are beginning to ponder the once-ridiculed idea of allowing the area to revert to a more natural state dubbed the "Buffalo Commons." General predictions of more extreme weather events of all types as climate change occurs could nudge this idea further. Land Institute essay, "The Uncommon Buffalo and the Buffalo Commons".
  • The US Dust Bowl in the 1930s is one of three examples of "ecomigration" disasters discussed in depth by Indiana University's Rafael Reuveny in his study published online Oct. 26, 2007, in the journal Human Ecology (release and abstract). Other ecomigrations covered include Bangladesh since the 1950s, and Hurricane Katrina. He concludes that the bitter conflicts that typically occur with the influx of large numbers of fleeing people into other areas can be ameliorated by better preparations in areas that are vulnerable to various natural disasters. Without such preparations, he says there will be nasty, sometimes violent clashes over jobs, resources, and basic cultural preferences, resulting in major problems such as theft, beatings, armed scuffles, seizure of resources and property, insurgencies, and murders.
  • Analogous angles on societal trauma, in this case alleged racial and ethnic discrimination in post-Katrina recovery efforts, are covered in Mark Schleifstein's New Orleans Times-Picayune article of Dec. 12, 2007.
  • Going back further in US history, the mass exodus of the peoples frequently called the Anasazi from the Four Corners area in the Southwest is often attributed in part to long-term drought. At the height of the Anasazi civilization, some archeologists have concluded that many more people than live there now occupied the area.
  • One of the driving forces behind the hotly debated immigration of Mexican residents into the US is the dearth of natural resources in much of Mexico, with problems exacerbated by a sustained drought.


  • Worldwide, one recent major disaster was the Sumatra earthquake and subsequent Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 that killed an estimated 200,000 people and destroyed about 1.5 million homes. The vast majority of the damage occurred in heavily-populated areas close to the coast.
  • In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr hammered Bangladesh. The tropical storm was considered the worst in about 15 years. Many residents and outside observers said that the area has been getting hit harder in recent decades, as both storms and population increase. In addition to acute disasters, groundwater in near-shore areas is being ruined as rising seas increase its saltiness (Dec. 12, 2007, The Guardian, Annie Kelly).
  • Massive flooding in October 2007 caused by heavy rains and large waves inundated an estimated 700,000 or so homes in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico, wreaking havoc similar to that of Hurricane Katrina.
  • In the Pacific and Indian oceans, many island areas have been in the news as immediate concerns about rising seas increase. Among them are the Maldives, Tuvalu, and Papua New Guinea.
  • In Africa, many countries have had major crises caused in part by severe drought, increased desertification, and famine. Hard-hit countries and areas have included Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan (which includes Darfur). To the northeast, Nepal is facing similar water crises and conflicts.
  • Wildfires have ravaged vast areas in many countries other than the US, including Indonesia, Portugal, and Australia.
  • Meager natural resources and high populations in the Middle East, a land much more verdant several thousand years ago, contributes to the long-running violence in that area.
  • Other countries that have had severe conflicts linked in part to various resource pressures include Burma, Columbia, Mali, Sri Lanka, and Uganda (Christian Aid, May 2007, "Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis").
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