A Bolivian runner finishes a race near the top of the barren Chacaltaya
ski slope outside La Paz, Bolivia, in 2006. Chacaltaya's glacier has
since melted and locals fear the nearby glacier of Illimani will also
vanish within two decades. REUTERS/David Mercado
BARCELONA (AlertNet) - Seferino Cortes has lived his life at the
foot of Illimani, one of Bolivia's tallest snow-capped peaks, tending
cattle, fruit trees and fields of maize, beans and potatoes.
But in a few decades he and his family expect to have to
abandon their land and move on. Illimani's glaciers, which provide his
community's water, are shrinking fast as winter snowfall plummets, and
are now expected to vanish within 40 years.
"We live from Illimani," said the soft-spoken 45-year-old
farmer, who attended international negotiations in Barcelona this week
aimed at creating a new global climate change pact.
"Without it, with what water will we irrigate our fields, wash
ourselves and our clothes, water our animals?" he said. "If there is no
water, we will have to leave our place. We will be forced to abandon
our community, our culture and custom."
As the effects of climate change take hold around the world,
countries, research institutions and international agencies are
debating how to handle what is expected to become a trickle and perhaps
eventually a flood of climate migrants.
A few nations are including migration as part of their national
plans of adaptation to climate change. For many others, it remains a
politically perilous subject.
"Would you allow a country that has been displaced to raise its
flag and play its national anthem (in a new home nation)?" asked a
Bangladesh negotiator, in a session on Wednesday on climate migration.
He said Bangladesh was planning for migration "but not willingly, not
Heavily populated, low-lying and storm-vulnerable Bangladesh is
widely expected to be one of the nations most likely to produce climate
migrants in the decades ahead, but a World Bank study on how the bank
might support national adaptation efforts around the world found that
Ghana, Ethiopia and probably Vietnam, to name just a few, are also
likely to produce climate migrants.
The bank is trying to figure out "how to support migration as
an adaptation strategy rather than viewing migration as a failure of
adaptation," said Robin Mearns, of the World Bank's social development
department. The reality is that migration "may not be people's first
choice but it may need to factor in."
UP TO A BILLION MAY HAVE TO MOVE
There are no good estimates of how many people may be forced to
abandon their homes permanently as a result of climate change, but
early forecasts put the number at anywhere from 25 million to a
billion. What is clear is that most are likely to be in southern
developing nations. Today, almost two thirds of international migration
happens from one developing nation to another, according to a U.N.
Development Programme report released this year.
The driving forces of climate migration, experts say, are
likely to include storms and other extreme weather, slow-onset problems
like environmental degradation and sea level rise, and increases in
violence and armed conflict as people fight over a shrinking base of
resources. There could even be displacement because of construction and
projects designed to fight climate change.
Among the particularly vulnerable will be people living in
poverty, in over-populated areas, in border regions and in situations
where they have little access to political decision making, said
Jean-Francois Durieux, deputy director of operational services for the
U.N. High Commission on Refugees.
The Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya, which have hosted
Somali refugees for a decade and a half, he said, are a prime example
of a place likely to produce climate migrants. The camps, set on an
inhospitably hot flood plain, have been overrun by two major floods in
a little over a decade and also regularly suffer droughts.
Climate refugees face mixed protection in international law.
International rules on internally displaced people - those who migrate
within their own nation - gives those forced to move because of
"natural or human-made disaster" protections and official status as
internal refugees, experts said.
But those who cross borders to escape climate-related problems
would not today be classified as refugees under existing conventions,
which give status only to those being persecuted because of their race,
religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular
social group, said Vikram Kolmannskog, a climate migration researcher
with the Norwegian Refugee Council.
"A lot of people will be protected, but a lot will not be," he
said. He noted that under most existing laws, countries could not
forcibly move their own people within national borders, even for their
own good. "Only under very strict criteria can you forcibly move
people," he said. "It has to be a measure of last resort."
One of the best ways to deal with the threat of climate
migrants, experts suggested, was for nations to begin planning to
expand towns in the least-threatened areas of their countries, and to
ramp up industry there, while training the most vulnerable in new job
skills, in preparation for wholesale population shifts.
Looking at how large-scale relocation has worked in areas where
dams and other big development projects have been built may provide
guidance on dealing with climate migration, Durieux said.
Making changes to social support networks also will be key,
Mearns said. He noted that ethnic minorities in Vietnam, who are slowly
moving to cities like Hanoi, often have trouble accessing benefits in
their new homes because benefit rights are linked to their former place
Introducing a unified social security system that would allow
benefits to be collected anywhere is "the kind of policy response that
could make a great response in helping facilitate migration as an
adaptation strategy," he said.