By Rama O. Co
When forced displacement becomes the topic of conversation, rarely does talk of climate change become part of the discussion. Images of refugees and displaced persons are often accompanied by buzzwords like ‘war’ and ‘armed conflict’, but not much is said about the role environmental degradation plays in the global humanitarian crisis we face today.
A World Bank study estimates that by 2030, more than 100 million people will be pushed into poverty by climate change. According to the report, the effects of rising sea levels and severe weather conditions are borne disproportionately, with the world’s poorest carrying the brunt of the impact. While the year 2030 seems like a lifetime away for some, skeptics need only turn to the 22.5 million individuals displaced by climate-related events since 2008, for a preview of what is to come.
While African nations are the most affected by water deficits, Asian countries lie on the opposite end of the natural disaster spectrum, suffering heavily from rising sea levels, flooding, and intense storms. In the last decade, the most prominent example of the latter would be Typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) in the Philippines.
In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the central Philippines. Packing sustained winds of 315 KPH, Haiyan, the strongest tropical cyclone in recorded history, claimed more than 6300 lives and left an estimated 4.1 million displaced.
UNHCR staff dispatched to affected areas were tasked with accomplishing five main goals: provision of emergency shelter and core relief items, protection monitoring and mainstreaming, capacity building and protection training, mobile civil registration, and advocacy.
In the aftermath of the initial relief effort, 700,000 affected persons have benefitted from life-saving assistance. About 90,000 civil registration documents have been processed for the most vulnerable. UNHCR was also able to distribute 88,000 blankets, 123,337 tents, 14,000 kitchen sets, 8,800 mosquito nets, 19,000 solar lanterns, and 33,000 jerry cans.
These figures, though small compared to the millions displaced by climate-change, proved to be invaluable in the road to recovery. They represent the combined efforts of dedicated UNHCR staff, volunteers, and generous donors.
The damage caused by climate change does not end there.
Even events that seem divorced from climate or weather-related developments are in no way independent. One prime example of this would be the Syrian civil war. Perhaps the poster child for the global refugee crisis, the conflict that has raged-on since 2011 has internally displaced over 13.5 million people, and has forced over 4.8 million to seek refugee status in other countries. Experts such as the Washington-based Center for Climate and Security has highlighted the role climate change played as a catalyst of the conflict.
Between 2006 and 2011, Syria’s agricultural regions suffered one of the worst droughts on record, destroying crops and killing 85% of livestock. As a result, millions of rural citizens were forced to seek refuge in already overcrowded cities like Daraa, Aleppo, and Damascus.
As urban unemployment and a rising scarcity of water drove once prosperous farmers into poverty, the civil unrest that followed grew into the multi-sided armed conflict that continues onto its fifth year in 2016. According to the Center for Climate and Security, even if the climate-stressed country recovers politically, Syria is on the path to losing nearly 50% of its agricultural capacity by 2050. Given this projection, it is expected that the suffering faced by displaced persons will only continue, as climate change remains a looming threat.
Despite this daunting task, the UNHCR remains steadfast in its mission to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees and forcibly displaced persons. Nearly seven decades since our founding in 1950, we continue to pave the way to a better world with humanitarian and solutions-based efforts.
Rama O. Co is an 18-year-old student at the Chinese International School Manila. He served as an intern for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in 2016. He writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer as a student correspondent and is part of the National Youth Council of an environmental organization.
To learn more about UNHCR’s response to climate change and displacement, you may read our answers to Frequently Asked Questions here.