Disasters now displace more people than conflicts
In 2019 two different studies on migration were published and they looked at two different periods. Yet both have a common finding: climate events are pushing migration. One looked at migration during Iron Age while the other at migration in 2019.
Traditionally, natural disasters have been associated with temporary displacement or migration of the population. But these reports debunk the temporary displacement view, especially today when climate change is triggering widespread extreme weather events leading to unheard of disasters across the world.
The first study released in November 2019—done by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur (IITKGP)—found convincing evidence for the popular hypothesis that climate change caused human migration during and after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The researchers concluded this from the study of two previously unknown post-Harappan Iron Age sites in the western part of the Great Rann of Kutch and the lower fringes of the Thar Desert. The Iron Age (3,100-2,300 years ago) is often referred to as the “Dark Age” because of scant historical and archaeological evidence from that period. These are the first Iron Age sites found in this particular region.
The study established that the inhabitants slowly moved from the Indus Valley sites in the west into the Ghaggar-Hakra valley in the east. “Our findings suggest that such human migration was far more expansive than thought before. We believe that the gradual southward shift of Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) over the last seven thousand years forced people to migrate for greener pastures,” says Anindya Sarkar, lead author of the study and professor of geology and geophysics at IITKGP. The shifting of the ITCZ decreased monsoon rains drying up rivers which would have made agriculture difficult.
The human migration from the Dark Age is similar to the one that the world is witnessing today, especially in low-lying coastal regions and islands which bear the brunt of the extreme weather events and sea level rise due to global warming.
Back in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had noted that the single greatest impact of climate change will be on human migration. Experts believe that by 2050, more than 200 million people will be forced to leave their homes. They are referred to as climate migrants or climate refugees.
The second study was released by the United Nations (UN) in December 2019. The periodic World Migration Report 2020 has dealt in details on the migration due to natural disasters. “Many more people are newly displaced by disasters in any given year, compared with those newly displaced by conflict and violence, and more countries are affected by disaster displacement,” says the report.
Since the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) for the first time started collating data on persons displaced by disasters in 2018, this set of population has been increasing. In 2019, 1.6 million people displaced by disasters were still in camps or places out of their homes. This was a “highly conservative estimate” as it didn’t take into consideration displacement by disasters before this year. At 2.678 million people, India had the highest number of people displaced by disasters and extreme weather events in 2018.
In 2018, of the total new 28 million internally displaced people in 148 countries, 61 per cent were due to disasters. In comparison, 39 per cent were due to conflict and violence. According to IDMC, storms displaced 9.3 million people and floods 5.4 million. Similarly, more countries reported displacement due to disaster than conflict and violence: 144 for disaster and 55 for conflict and violence. According to UN, disasters and geophysical hazards have an average of 3.1 million displacements per year since 2008.
The evidence for such climate change-based migration is slowly surfacing. For instance, during 2011-2015, climatic changes like severe drought-induced conditions led to armed conflict, which in turn, led to asylum seeking and migration, according to a research paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change in January 2019. “The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many countries were undergoing political transformation,” says the study.
During the Conference of Parties (CoP 25) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Madrid, Spain in December 2019, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released the annual State of Global Climate 2019. According to this report, 22 million people would be displaced by December 31, 2019, due to extreme weather events.
The report noted that extreme weather events, triggered by global warming and resultant climate change, increased in 2019. This is a trend that has continued since the last few decades. “On a day-to-day basis, the impacts of climate change play out through extreme and abnormal weather. And, once again, in 2019, weather and climate-related risks hit hard. Heatwaves and floods, which used to be once-in-a-century events, are becoming more regular occurrences,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. According to the report, more than 10 million people were displaced internally — within a country — between January and June 2019. Out of this, 7 million were due to extreme weather events like floods, cyclones and hurricanes.
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