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Climate Crisis

Fleeing Climate Disasters

All over the world, extreme climatic events are causing people to lose their homes and livelihoods, forcing them to start over elsewhere. The interdisciplinary research project RE-TRANS identifies which regions are particularly under threat and analyzes how to best manage mass relocations.
Text by Patrizia Widmer; English translation by Caitlin Stephens
Fleeing floods: people in Jaffarabad, a region in south-east Pakistan. (Picture: Fida Hussain, Keystone)


Drought, storms, flooding, sea-level rises, forest fires – the consequences of climate change are already a sobering reality in many parts of the world, putting the livelihoods and homes of millions of people at risk. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), since 2008 around 20 million people a year have had to flee land stricken by drought, tropical storms, torrential rainfall and flooding. And this is just the beginning. UZH geography professor Christian Huggel believes the number of climate refugees in the next decades is likely to continue increasing.

It’s difficult to predict just how many people will be affected. According to prognoses, between 30 and 140 million people in Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia could be forced to temporarily or permanently relocate due to environmental changes. “We are going to face enormous challenges – on national and international levels,” says Christian Huggel.

Chaotic resettlement processes

Until recently, the reasons for people leaving their homes were usually economic, political, social or cultural. As a new factor in the mix, climate change is set to ramp up the pressure. Christian Huggel expects it to become one of the main reasons for migration in the future. Such movements also pose a challenge for governments in the affected countries. For example, if government authorities have to relocate people from areas under threat, they need to be able to offer them viable future prospects. “Until now, such resettlements have been chaotic and uncontrolled,” says Huggel.

As a geographer, he wants to find out why – and figure out how it could be done better. To this end, he has launched a major interdisciplinary research project at UZH called RE-TRANS. The aim of the project is to analyze previous resettlement processes and draw lessons for the future, using a comprehensive approach that includes historical, technical, financial and legal dimensions as well as perspectives from the political, social and natural sciences. Ultimately, the research team aims to develop a guide for those working on the ground to facilitate future resettlements and make them more sustainable.

To get an overview of the situation, researchers are currently developing a global risk map to plot areas which are likely to become uninhabitable due to climate changes and thus will require resettlement of populations. Specifically, the researchers will study threatened areas in the Bengal Delta (rising sea level, flooding and drought) and central Colombia (forest clearing and heat), as well as the Peruvian Altiplano region and the Swiss Alps (both at risk from melting glaciers).

In his previous research, Huggel already established that on the whole people try to adapt to climate change, for example by rebuilding damaged infrastructure – provided they can afford to do so. “In many cases, the whole population does not move away en masse,” says the researcher. The choice of whether to stay or leave one’s home is often a matter of personal risk assessment. People’s decisions are also influenced by the question of whether or not there are appealing prospects elsewhere. “Most people whose homes are under threat would leave voluntarily if the government offered them a good alternative,” believes Huggel.

Heat, fires, storms

India is one of the countries that is already suffering particularly badly from the consequences of climate change. Temperatures of up to 50°C are already being recorded on the Indian subcontinent. “These temperatures will likely rise even more,” says Maria J. Santos, professor of Earth system science at UZH and a member of the RE-TRANS project team. Santos researches how ecosystems and humans influence each other in India, among other places. She also analyzes what resettlement options exist from a social and ecological perspective, and how resettlement would affect biodiversity and ecosystem processes.

As well as putting a heavy strain on the human body, the heat in many parts of India affects animals and plants. The ground becomes dry, vegetation dies off, and without the cooling effect of the plants, temperatures rise even more. The country is facing periods of severe drought, which will hamper food production. At the same time, other regions of the country are at risk of major flooding. There are also likely to be energy shortages due to lack of water for power stations. All of these developments mean that millions of people could be forced to flee. Maria J. Santos predicts three different climate-related mass migration movements in India: away from rural areas plagued by droughts and floods; out of megacities that will become unbearable heat traps; and from delta areas that will disappear into the ocean.

India is not alone in facing such scenarios – other parts of the world are also staring down the barrel of destruction. For example, forest fires and wildfires threaten southern Europe, California and Australia. “Three years ago there were major fires in these regions,” says Huggel. “Entire villages were destroyed.” The local people had to ask themselves: was it worth rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure, or should they move away?

As temperatures rise, polar ice melts and coastal regions are submerged by the sea. It’s not just small islands that will disappear underwater; many major cities will also be affected by sea-level rises, including New York. “A lot of measures are already being taken there to protect people and infrastructure from rising sea levels,” Huggel says.

Two or more climate change hazards are often combined in one place, for example in the US state of Florida. There, says Huggel, alongside the rising sea level, tropical storms reach further inland than previously, causing major damage. Increasingly intense and frequent floods and storms are another major hazard that will contribute to climate migration.

Poorest hit hardest

Despite the lack of sufficient data on climate migration, one thing is clear: the very poorest members of society will be hardest hit. Migration requires money – which many people affected by climate change lack. In India, for example, as elsewhere, great wealth exists alongside extreme poverty. According to the United Nations, around 16 percent of India’s population still lives in poverty, despite the country’s economic boom. An additional factor is the traditionally hierarchical structure of Indian society. There are many different ethnic groups, and land use is characterized by diverse traditions – thus for social and cultural reasons, some groups do not have the opportunity to migrate at all.

India is currently the second most populous country in the world, with a population of over 1.4 billion. It will not be easy for people to find space for new homes, given the high population density. “As you see, there are numerous factors that make resettlement a very difficult issue,” concludes Maria J. Santos. How can the resettlement of people in India and other countries with similar challenges be managed successfully? Over the next five years, the RE-TRANS researchers will try to find answers to this pressing question.


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