Climate Refugee

A climate refugee is someone displaced by climate change induced environmental disasters. Such disasters are the result of incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption that include increased droughts,desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and tornadoes. The term climate refugee is seen by some as an inappropriate term, and they would rather see it replaced with environmental migrant. Many people have raised objections to the use of the term ‘refugee’ in a climate context as it becomes mixed up with the legally defined term in the Refugee Convention of 1951. This Convention classifies refugees as those who are fleeing from violence and political intimidation.


So the debate over environmental refugees has been often criticised on the ground that there is no accepted definition of environmental refugees. An excellent article by Architesh Panda written in May 2010 (click on the link to download the pdf file), explores this idea.

The inhabitants of the Carteret Islands are climate refugees caused by sea level rise, and other inhabitants of low lying islands and Island states are also at risk. Tuvalu is especially susceptible to changes in sea level and storm surges and is likely to be another casualty.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international science body that regularly produces assessment reports on climate change, suggested 200 million environmental refugees would exist by 2050. In this projection, the impacts of climate change, including coastal flooding, shoreline erosion and agricultural degradation were seen as major factors contributing to bulk of environmental refugees.




Seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers in deltaic and non-deltaic areas is an increasing problem with rising sea level, and has been documented in diverse environments such as the arid Israeli coast, the humid Thailand coast, the Chinese Yangtze Delta, the Vietnamese Mekong Delta, and low-lying atolls. In the Yangtze delta, one consequence of saltwater incursion will be that during dry seasons shortages of freshwater for agriculture are likely to be more pronounced and agricultural yields seriously reduced particularly around Shanghai.



Storm Surges

The most destructive element associated with an intense cyclone is storm surge. Storm surge heights depend on the intensity of the cyclone, i.e., very high-pressure gradient and consequent very strong winds and the topography of seabed near the point where a cyclone crosses the coast. Sea level also rises due to astronomical high tide. Elevation of the total sea level increases when peak surge occurs at the time of high tide. Past history indicates that loss of life is significant when surge magnitude is 3 metres or more and catastrophic when 5 metres and above.

Storm-surge flooding in Bangladesh has caused very high mortality in the coastal population (e.g., at least 225,000 in November 1970 and 138,000 in April 1991), with the highest mortality among the old and weak. Shorelines are inherently dynamic, responding to short and long-term variability and trends in sea level, wave energy, sediment supply, and other forcing. Land that is subject to flooding which is at least 15% of the Bangladesh land area is disproportionately occupied by people living a marginal existence with few options or resources for adaptation. The IPCC have found very few studies that indicate benefits of climate change and sea-level rise in coastal and marine systems.



Case Study – Climate Refugee

The village of Kanhapur in Orissa (India) is on its own after other villages were swept away in a storm surge. It clings to the last piece of slightly higher ground. Half of the village has already been washed away. Signs of the stilts on which houses once stood all along the beach and the old village water pump, once the heart of the village, stands comically in the middle of the beach.

India, Orissa, village of Kanhapur water pump on beach

The video below shows the impacts of sea level rise on coastal communities in Orissa, India. The poor village literally got sucked into the rising ocean. The sea used to be a half days walk away, now it has claimed their village. The term ‘climate refugee’ is one we will hear a lot more of, although as noted in the opening paragraph it more appropriate to refer to climatically displaced people as ‘environmental migrants’.

What is Being Done?


Frank Biermann, a professor at Vrije University’s Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam. Says, “The system is moving further away from meeting the needs, and the countries that are becoming more restrictive (on migration) are those who are largely responsible for global warming.”

Professor Biermann argues that long-term strategies like moving people away from high-risk coastal zones could avert a crisis later. “We don’t want people grabbing their suitcases,” he said. “They need new land, new jobs and seeds.”

Some measures that could help vulnerable people adapt to climate change were on the agenda at the December 2007 meeting in Bali, Indonesia. It was agreed at this meeting to launch a UN fund to help poor nations cope with the impact of global warming.


What Other Visitors Have Said

Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page…

Awareness blog and resource site on climate refugees starstarstarstarstar
This is a great site which advocates the formal recognition of climate refugees

Towards Recognition

Climate Refugees ~ Wake Up Australia! starstarstarstarstar
The international science body that regularly produces assessment reports on climate change; suggests 200 million environmental refugees will exist by …

Cyclone Refugees starstarstarstarstar
I think we are already seeing refugees as a result of the climate change. Cyclone Sidr hit Bangladesh and has left a huge trail of devastation. More than …

Its’ not a matter of if, it’s when. Not rated yet
In Sudan and Mogadeshu in 1991,was seeing the largest of human mass exodus to better and more affluent pastures I had ever seen besides the US Military …

Climate Refugees a Great Curse for Development Not rated yet
These climate refugees have lost their social capital, economic power because they have no jobs. Finally they become a burden for society.

Environmental Migrant vs Climate Refugee Not rated yet
I think the term environmental migrant is kind of a cop – out. Climate refugee is a stronger, more urgent term,Many of these people eg. in the Horn of …

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