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Climate Change and Environmental Refugees Part II: Can we Decrease the Number of Environmental Refugees ?

ResearchBlogging.org

By: Rosemary Stephen, Elements: Environmental Health Intelligence

In Part I we saw that we are in the midst of a global, human displacement crisis. Tension is already building in countries which are facing an increasing number of immigrants. Poverty, population growth and environmental issues such as drought and desertification, are the root causes of why people seek a better life elsewhere. We looked at why International agencies are unable to recognize ‘Environmental Refugees’ – mainly because they are already overwhelmed by ‘Legal Refugees’. We also touched on the situation in Darfur in the Sudan and looked at how difficult it is to define the status of their refugees. In Part II, we discuss ways to reduce the number of environmental refugees.

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The origin of environmental refugees can be partially blamed on our dependence on non-reusable energy which has caused increased gas emissions into the atmosphere. These energy bi-products include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorocarbons (HCFC, HFC, PFC). These gases, grouped under the term “Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, have, since the 1990′s, been identified as being responsible for climate change [1]. CO2 is the worst greenhouse gas with a 76% distribution in earth’s atmosphere; the other gases follow with CH4 at 13%, N2O at 6% and HCFC, HFC, PFC running at 5% [2].

Another reason cited in scientific literature to explain climate change is the earth’s natural warming and cooling cycles. Deep-sea cores have revealed evidence that the earth warms and cools naturally on a 1,000 to 3,000 year cycle. The last cooling period may be the so-called Little Ice Age which began ca. 1100 CE. This cool period lasted for a few hundred years and then a warming trend again started; we may currently still be experiencing this trend [3].

The important question, however, is – whatever is causing the current climate change, be it greenhouse gas emissions and/or the earth’s natural cycles — can we reverse this trend?

If we could stop all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, would it change anything? How long would it take to drop CO2 back to the level of the early industrial period (circa 1900) when CO2 levels sat at 290 ppm? [4] Dr. Susan Solomon, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and winner of the 2009 Volvo Environmental Prize, mentions in her pioneering study entitled Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions [5] that “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped” [6]. She also adds that “increases in CO2 that occur in this century “lock in” a sea level rise that would slowly follow in the next 1,000 years” [7]. If this is the case, humans must now be resourceful. The world’s populations must decide upon a response to our changing climate.

Can we decrease the number of environmental refugees through Reforestation?

The World Health Organization diagram below clearly indicates that climate change is a driving force that directly influences human populations world wide [8].

WHO climate change chart

“Climate Change and Human Health, Global Environmental Change”

Source: World Health Organization, Climate Change and Human Health. Available at: http://www.who.int/globalchange/climate/en/

One of the major issues identified by this chart is desertification / land degradation. Forests are ecosystems that have sustained human life for eons. We use forests as a source of fuel for cooking and as a source for building materials. We also use forested lands as a source for many foods and medications. Wood, if managed properly, is very inexpensive, easily accessible and renewable but overuse of this natural resource has resulted in deforestation and the degradation of human environments. Reforestation is by far the most efficient way to tackle climate change and hence the most efficient way to decrease the number of environmental refugees. Prof. Norman Myers, environmentalist, authority on biodiversity and three time leading environmental prize winner, stresses in “Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue” that reforestation is the best way to embrace a sustainable development approach in countries facing difficulties in meeting human needs. Reforestation will “rehabilitate hydrological systems and watershed functions, and thus avoid floods and drying-out of river systems downstream” [9].

Another proponent of reforestation is the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai’s. She is now Deputy Minister for the Environment in Kenya. During her Nobel prize acceptance speech, she mentioned that “A degraded environment leads to a scramble for scarce resources and may culminate in poverty and even conflict” [10]. She started a tree planting program in 1977 with just seven trees. This soon became the Green Belt Movement where Kenyan women are encouraged to care for seedlings obtained from native trees. These seedling are used as stock plantings for reforestation in villages [11]. Numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are now involved with reforestation in other developing countries, for example in South Korea, in China and in Turkey [12]. The aims of reforestation projects are simple: restoration of water tables, rehabilitation of ecosystems, reduction of ambient air temperature and creation of buffer zones to decrease strong wind velocity. Reforestation with indigenous trees and shrubs also helps produce natural medicines, provide biofuel and other derived products such as honey [13)]

One such successful reforestation program has occurred in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Started in 1986, it is called the “Community Reforestation Project”; the mandate of this project involved the correction of two important issues: slope stabilization and job creation. It focused on planting indigenous trees on steep hillsides inhabited by favelas. Favelas are spontaneous, unregulated settlements which consist of “…an area, predominantly of housing, characterized by the occupation of land by low-income populations, precarious infrastructure and public services, narrow and irregular layout of access ways, irregular shaped and sized plots and unregistered constructions, breaking with legal standards” [14]. To achieve their goals, the project concentrated on hillside improvements and on reforestation. They hired favela occupants to build infrastructures such as terraces, drainage canals and proper roads. These projects were specifically designed to stabilize the soil, increase water retention and reduce erosion on the steep hills. The local workers also acquired skills that were transferable to construction sites in lowland areas, providing future employment opportunities.

Instead of trying to organize massive reforestation, the project opted for planting small, scattered plots of land over a three to four year period. They also focused on the re-introduction native tree species well adapted to hilly terrain. The forest plan included planting fast growing leguminous trees mixed with native, exotic and fruit bearing trees. The project staff also began educational programs to raise the awareness of the favela populations, instructing them on how they could protect and maintain the new forested areas. Of of 54 communities who participated in this reforestation project, only two recorded tree loss [15]. This project resulted in a decrease of urban sprawl caused by the expansion of favelas, the regrowth of indigenous vegetation, an increase in available food, the return of native wildlife species, the regeneration of springs, the provision of shade and the improvement of air quality.

Can we decrease the number of Environmental Refugees through Adaptation?

The term ‘adaptation’ when used in the area of climate change is the adoption of new behaviors that will help people cope with environmental changes [16]. There are numerous smaller examples of adaption strategies, including selecting farm animals with limited water or foliage requirements, growing short season crops or drought and pest resistant crops, and changing irrigation techniques to reduce water requirements. There are also large scale adaption methods that could help us alleviate the affects of climate change including land reclamation and climate proofing [17].

Adaptation: Land Reclamation

A large percentage of the global population (one out of 10 humans) lives in lowland areas with elevations at, or below, sea level. At the moment, 10% of the of the world’s total population, and 13% of the world’s urban population, live in lowlands; this represents circa 600 million individuals [18]. With an increasing number of stronger storms, the disappearance of coastal forests and a general, slow rise in sea levels, erosion of coastal areas is inevitable [19]. Unless internal policies, such as mitigation or migration to higher ground, are implemented, people living in lowlands will face constant serious threats to their livelihood. One adaptive approach to mitigate loss of coastal areas is land reclamation.

The main objective of land reclamation is to add more land for agriculture and human settlement. It is basically a survival strategy. Land reclamation is done by diking, creating embankments thick enough to prevent percolation of water at the base and high enough to prevent even the highest tides from washing over the top [20]. This method must be implemented carefully and managed properly to prevent loss of inter-tidal zones such as wetlands and coastal forests (e.g. mangrove forests). These zones are responsible for natural evaporation processes that bring water from the ocean to the land and they play a large role in the absorption of much of the ocean’s forces. Inter-tidal zones are also rich with food, important for humans and animals alike.

Diking can work as the natural landscape generally adapts to such changes, but if these changes are poorly designed or implemented too rapidly, they will adversely affect the ecosystem [21]. Poorly researched, implemented and managed land reclamation may decrease the amount of rainfall, increase the frequency of dry weather, decrease biodiversity and deplete fish stocks. Red tides, which are caused by an accumulation of nutrients in river deltas, will also occur more frequently if there is a restriction in tidal movements.

Land reclamation is the adaption of choice in Singapore. Hazri Hassan, Singapore’s Environment Minister mentioned [22] that his country has opted to reclaim land and raise the elevation by 125 cm (four feet) above the highest sea level predicted by the UN over the next century. He feels that “In Singapore, it is more cost effective to adapt than to retreat” [23]. Other countries which have also opted for land reclamation are: the Netherlands, who are already experts in this field, Japan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Adaption: Climate Proofing

Climate proofing is “a decision-making process in land and water management, in which both risks and opportunities of climate change are taken into account. The concept of climate-proofing uses a combination of infrastructural and institutional measures in order to adapt to future climate change” [24].

Global demography tells us the location of the most vulnerable geographical areas in the world. Two-thirds of the global population live in Mumbai, Shanghai, Karachi, Delhi, Istanbul, Sâo Paulo, Moscow, Seoul, Beijing and Mexico City [25]. Five of these mega cities – Delhi, Istanbul, Mexico City, Mumbai and Sao Paulo [26] — are located in vulnerable geographical areas already prone to flooding, storms and earthquakes [27]. Other large cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Shanghai, and Hanoi are now facing the effects of climate change with extreme weather events [28].

Many cities are now beginning taking climate change seriously, creating strategies to increase their resilience to climate change. Milan, Tokyo, New York, China’s Dong Tan, Hanoi, Singapore, and a few cities within the Metro Manila area have initiated climate proofing strategies that include monitoring and protecting water supplies, providing more efficient public transportation, reducing chemical and other wastes from industry, providing more green space and educating the public. These cities believe that they will decrease the effect of climate change by “informing the population about the negative effect of climate change, providing more green space; using bicycles or walking more; and increasing the use of energy-efficient public transport vehicles” [29].

Can we decrease the number of Environmental Refugees through Integrated Risk Reduction?

Integrated Risk Reduction is an adaptation strategy with the main goal of managing “current and future risks “to ensure that these risks are reduced to an acceptable level. It is a holistic approach that is an integral part of sustainable development planing. This will have “long-lasting and environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially acceptable changes implemented at one or more of the following stages in the project cycle: planning, design, construction, operation, and decommissioning” [30].

Change Adaptation through Integrated Risk Reduction, or CCAIRR, has a lot of potential especially in International Humanitarian Aid. Detailed information on this complicated and systemic adaptation strategy is available in a report entitled “Climate Proofing: A Risk-based Approach to Adaptation” which presents case studies done in the Cook Island and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Readers will understand, how to apply risk assessment methods and tools, how to counteract some of the negative effect of climate change and how to request funding for climate proofing projects. In chapter 7, Box VII.2, “Key Findings and Recommendations”, the report suggests that “Activities to be funded should be country-driven, cost effective, and integrated into national sustainable development and poverty-reduction strategies” [31].

Relocation – the final option

Relocation is the “transportation of people (as a family or colony) to a new settlement (as after an upheaval of some kind)” [32]. Whole scale relocation of a population would only be done when reforestation, land reclamation, climate proofing and Integrated Risk Reduction principles cannot be applied successfully because the land itself is threatened by ever increasing sea levels.

Since 1880, the sea levels have risen by 20 cm (8 in.) and it is predicted they will rise even more reaching 18cm to 59 cm (7in to 23in.) by 2100 in some areas [33]. Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, the Cook Islands, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, are all nations which are already affected by this rise. Two other island nations, Kiribati, which since 2000 had to evacuate two village islands, and the Carteret Islands, which had to relocate their population to Bougainville, were unable to mitigate, prepare, respond or recover from the effect of climate change [33, 34]. This is not all, the Maldives, in a matter of two weeks, just prior to 07 June 2009, lost 1,200 ft (366 meters) stretch of beach [35]. Faced with this catastrophe, they decided to ask the international community for help. They would like either to buy land or islands to relocate their entire population or to be accepted as immigrants in a host country [36].

Tuvalu is an island nation consisting of nine atolls (representing an area of 10 square miles / 26 square km) and a population of 11,800 people. A few years ago, Tuvalu began to experience stronger king tides. These are higher than usual tides that appear in February when the sun and the moon are aligned. King tides have a larger destructive potential than standard seasonal tides, often causing severe flooding. To date, main roads have been destroyed, croplands have been rendered unproductive, saltwater has intruded into groundwater and coconut trees are partially submerged. Faced with such destructive forces, Tuvalu decided to act quickly instead of waiting for international help programs. The simply decided to leave their island nation altogether; they have asked the New Zealand government if they could emigrate. New Zealand is accepting limited numbers of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tongan citizens every year and it may take six or more years for the whole population to relocate [37, 38, 39, 40, 41].

Conclusion

There are ways to reduce the number of environmental refugees. One of the best approaches is through reforestation. The simple act of planting trees will restore water tables, rehabilitate ecosystems, reduce ambient air temperatures and create buffer zones to decrease strong wind velocity. Other advantages include: the production of natural medicines, the increased availability of biofuel and the increased availability of other derived food products.

Adaption is another method that will help decrease the number of environmental refugees. Land reclamation, if managed properly, can provide land for agriculture and human settlement. Climate proofing through more public awareness and change in behaviors that will reduce the emission of CO2 is also a step in the right direction. Changes in water consumption, especially in agriculture through mulching and better water management, are ways to reduce desertification. Other options of adaptation includes planting heat, salt and drought tolerant crops. Change Adaptation through Integrated Risk Reduction is a method that allows concerned countries to plan for national sustainable development and poverty-reduction strategies.

The final option of relocation does not decrease the number of environmental refugees. Relocation is instead the end result when other strategies do not work. Numerous island nations are at that stage right now and this is where the international community resources can be put to best use. It is hard for any country to feel beaten by climate change, but if we provide services to ease the process of relocation, these island nations will be able to keep their own identity and thrive in their new homes.

Rosemary Stephen (2009). Climate Change and Environmental Refugees Part II: Can we Decrease the Number of Environmental Refugees ? Elements: Environmental Health Intelligence

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[33] Relocation (2009) WordNet Search – 3.0 (On-line) Available: http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=relocation. Cited 2009 Oct 01.

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Additional reading

Johnston, K., Climate Change: A Cause of Conflict? (2008) Global Policy Forum. (On-line) Available: http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40388.html. Cited 2009 Sept 24.

Adaptation to climate change in agriculture, forestry and fisheries: Perspective, framework and priorities (2007) Food and Agriculture Organization off the United Nations (Rome 2007) (On-line) Available: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/009/j9271e/j9271e.pdf .Cited 2009 Sept 25.

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5 Responses

  1. [...] Via healthspace ] Posted by bernt65 Filed in rebuilding the world Leave a Comment [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Lovett, ResearchBlogging.org. ResearchBlogging.org said: Climate Change and Environmental Refugees Part II: Can we Decrease the Number of Environmental Refugees ? http://bit.ly/NaBR7 [...]

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  4. Philip Mallard

    2009-11-03, 05:59:01

    I do not see the rigorous discipline that scientific investigation demands here. I see assumptions. I see presumption. I see exception. These assumptions on reading your Blog are set on an almost basis of faith alone that this is what will happen if that happens and that they are truly rigorous and need no further examination… When Krakatoa erupted what was the result vis a vis climate change? When Saddam set the oil fields ablaze in 1991 what were the effects on climate change? What were the health effects upon those involved? It may be nice to suppose or predict but as to what the realities are today I would go back and examine again as I was taught until all blatant and hopefully subtle error from my perspective/theory conclusions is expunged and then only then give it to my greatest detractors and let them rip me apart that is the true nature of science. But regardless of what our puny mentalities conclude nature will en fin have the last word. And we have been so wrong so many times before and for so long I will not let my 21st century conceit color what I do not really know yet! Even your/our environmental heroine Rachael Carson arrayed her data. As my mentor used to demand of us when we were not yet fully fledged. “Go back look again examine, redo, rethink until it becomes so much a part of you that breathing requires more effort. If you wish to lead humanity to the cliff and you know you are correct hooray for you. As for me I will choose to remain the more sure footed, more plodding and more conservative in my pronouncements projections and as for my predilections they must never color my conclusions. There is too much bias, too little surety of fact and the necessary statement of that fact and its manner of collection its restatement, replication and the presentation that when re examined by others in the exact manner the conclusion was the same and that objectivity reigned supreme and nothing was teased for the sake of “garnering more grant!” I can give you the idea the earth is spheroid that there still remain seasonal variation, and daily variation. I can give you the moon’s effect upon the tides and us- borderline lunatics that we all are. I can grant you the effects of sunspot and solar flare upon our miniscule orb. But to tell all others we are killing ourselves with our industry is a bit of a leap. We are tinkering with an established rhythm but not to the degree you hope!

  5. R. Stephen

    Hello Philip,

    Thank you for your response.

    The question of the cause of climate change, be it man made or natural cycles, is not at issue here. The issue instead is how does the world cope with the human displacement crisis created by such problems as rising sea levels and intense drought ? How do we deal with the circa 50 million people who have had to leave their lands already due to climactic reasons? And how can the world help the estimated 200 million people who will be affected in the near future ?

    What do you suggest ?

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