The first people to be popularly called “environmental refugees" as such were the people fleeing the disastrous African drought in the Sahel region in the seventies. That catastrophe turned the best cropland in five countries of Africa into cracked and barren earth.
But the term “environmental refugee” was popularised later, in 1985, by Essam El-Hinnawi of the National Research Centre, Cairo. His 40-page booklet “Environmental Refugees”was a landmark paper in that direction.
In 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), through “State of the World’s Refugees”, identified four causes of refugee flows: political instability, economic tensions, ethnic conflict and finally including “environmental degradation”. Today, natural disasters, development, resource abuse, and degradation are forcing millions and millions of people from their homes.
How it all began
However, environmental refugees are not a recent phenomenon. Right from the beginning of human history, people have had to leave their land because it had been degraded and could not sustain them. Natural disasters have been taking place right from the very beginning and later man-made phenomenon like wars also led to the degradation of the environment.
So then, what is recent is the potential for large movements of people resulting from a combination of resource depletion, the irreversible destruction of the environment and population growth, among others.
Millions and millions today
Environmental refugees are emerging as a significant proportion of the world’s displaced. Ecologist Norman Myers of the Oxford University estimates that currently 25 million people worldwide have been uprooted for environmental causes, exceeding the 22 million refugees from civil war and persecution.1995
Born a Refugee
In some parts of the world, children are born as environmental refugees. They have no home. Their parents have long since cleared the forest and there is no longer arable lands or clean drinking. They and their families wander the barren land in search of any patch of forest they can clear just to get through the next few months, maybe years.
The Worldwatch Institute estimates today there are more than 10 million such people – those who have lost their homes and land because of environmental degradation – worldwide, making them the largest class of refugee
In 1985, Egyptian Al-Hinnawi of the National Research Centre, Cairo, put environmental refugees into the following three categories:
Category 1: People temporarily displaced due to environmental stress.
For example: Natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, massive storms, environmental mishaps (like Chernobyl).
Damage: Is severe, but the land and people’s lives can usually be re-established after clean up and rebuilding.
Category 2: People permanently displaced and resettled in another area.
For example: Permanent changes (dams), natural disasters that permanently damage an area (volcanoes).
Category 3: People who can no longer be supported by their lands because of environmental degradation.
For example: Massive changes in the environment that render it practically obsolete for human survival, often due to human actions (deforestation and desertification).
As weather systems become more erratic, resources become scarcer, more and more people worldwide are losing their lands, homes and means of subsistence.
Indigenous groups suffer the most
These refugees also face persecution due to the hegemonic discrimination embedded in world culture. This is found throughout examples of environmental refugees, almost all of who are indigenous peoples.
These groups have often been moved, without reparation or voice in the system.
The more affluent and powerful have the resources necessary to relocate if the land degrades beyond repair, leaving the subsistence groups homeless and hungry.
Environmental damage due to migration
Environmental degradation occurs in one place and the displaced usually move to a new environment, which is also degraded. Mass migration frequently causes heavy damage on a similar scale. The fleeing people arrive at a new place virtually empty-handed and immediately storm into "free" and “unpatrolled” natural resources. The temporary stay also develops a short-term attitude towards their new surrounding and their desperate measure exploits whatever available.
That is why some countries forbid refugees from using water and natural resources around them, preferring to give them a fixed quota of such essentials.
While people have fled in large numbers for environmental reasons in the past, the present condition of the world is altogether different. Environmental degradation is occurring so rapidly that forests will soon disappear, topsoil will quickly be eroded, water resources will dry up, and land shortages and overuse will be exacerbated by unsustainable population growth in just a few years. The number of environmental refugees looks to rise rapidly.
Development & Displacement
Dams: The biggests busters
India and China are the two most populous countries in the world. They are also two of the biggest dam builders.
The Indian government has built many dams in the past four decades. Some estimates say this has displaced in excess of 20 million. Many of the displaced people were not consulted or properly compensated, and most of these refugees are also indigenous and tribal groups.
For example, the Karjan and Sukhi reservoirs in the Gujarat displaced only tribal people. In Orissa, tribals constituted 98% of those displaced by the Balimela Hydro Project and 96% of those displaced by the Upper Kolar Dam.
Also, due to the land specifications necessary to construct dams, the displaced people generally were hill or river inhabitants, but were moved to plains, deserts, or mountains—less desirable, less productive lands.
But the most controversial of these has proved to be the Narmada valley, where the government demarcated 30 dams including 2 large dams dubbed as “megadams”. It has attracted the widest protests and is still steeped in controversy.
China’s Three Gorges Project is regarded as one of the biggest development projects in the world. The largest dam in the world when completed, it is estimated that 1.3 to 1.9 million people will be relocated to other areas. Government officials claim that the quality of life of the oustees will be improved after relocation. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case till now.
Cities uprooting shelters
In Chennai, the Government of Tamil Nadu took a loan from the World Bank to clean up and 'beautify' the waterways. While it seemed like a good idea, it resulted in the displacement of the people who had been living on the banks of rivers and canals for many years.
Nearly 29,400 families were living along the waterways in Chennai—the Buckingham Canal, the Cooum river, the Adyar river, the Otteri Nullah and the Virugambakkam-Arumbakkam drain. They were given eviction orders and offered to far away places where it is difficult to find employment. People in 33 settlements were affected. They are slum-dwellers who work as domestic servants, construction workers, coolies, auto-rickshaw drivers and pavement vendors in the city.
The Public Works Department plans to settle them in dry lakes or tanks in and around Chennai. The middle class and the upper class support their displacement as they feel Chennai should be kept “beautiful”.
Modern industry, not being labour-intensive, cannot absorb the displaced people at the same rate in which agriculture supported them earlier
Make way for the industries!
Unlike the uprooting caused by big dam construction, which draws a lot of public and media attention due to one-time projection of the number of people affected or the amount of land acquired, industrial displacement is a slow, gradual process, where growth on one hand leads to marginalization on the other. The affected people demand a share of whatever development occurs in their land. But modern industry, not being labour-intensive, cannot absorb the displaced people at the same rate in which agriculture supported them earlier. Moreover, better jobs go to outsiders who then dominate the new set-up. The impact on women is severe. Their old occupations are not available and there is much less scope for them in industry.
The barren fields
While all governments talk of development through big projects, very few concentrate on the development of agricultural lands. And, degradation of agricultural land is another big displacer. The most affected are the poor, those who rely on the land for their livelihood and sustenance. Desertification and deforestation affect more than one-sixth of the world's population already. Reports of displacees from desertification cite 24 million as the worldwide total for this category, the African Sahel alone producing 2 million.
Whither individual rights?
In recent years, one social issue that has caused intense debate among academics, social activists and planners is the involuntary displacement of people from their productive assets (particularly land) and homes, due to industrial or infrastructure projects. Though the process of acquisition of land for setting up mining, irrigation, transportation or mega-industrial projects (mostly in the public sector) is not new, the intensity of adverse effects was never comprehended in the past as it is today. The liberalisation of the economy, growing needs of infrastructure in fast-growing cities and new partnerships in industrial/economic sectors have threatened traditional sources of sustenance of people. More and more agricultural lands are being depleted for setting up industrial/ infrastructure projects. The situation is aggravated due to major conversion of agricultural lands voluntarily or involuntarily into urbanisable lands. There is no authentic data to ascertain the loss of agricultural lands due to increasing urbanisation in the country.