In developed countries people are demanding that political leaders take action on climate change to save the planet for their future. Meanwhile, in developing countries, extreme events caused by climate change are displacing millions of people. For these millions, climate change is a survival issue today: they cannot wait for the future.
Fifty years ago Lake Chad occupied 10,000 km2. As a consequence of a succession of extreme droughts its area is now 1,200 km2, just 12% of what it was. The lake has always been a vital resource in an arid zone and today supports around 40 million people in the four countries that border it. According to the World Economic Forum, most are subsistence farmers and around 63% are destitute and living on land that is becoming uninhabitable. During the dry season, men leave to find work elsewhere. Conflict in surrounding countries limits their options. The majority migrate internally and a minority attempt the migration to Europe, which is costly and dangerous. The consequence is the fracturing of communities, with the women and children who are left behind carrying an increasing burden.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that worldwide, in 2018, increasing desertification, rising sea levels and extreme weather events were responsible for the displacement of around 16 million people. By 2050, that number will grow ten-fold (150 to 200 million). The most vulnerable countries are already experiencing increasing environmental pressure forcing people to migrate. But where can they go? Climate-induced migration does not attract the same attention or protections as that given to Refugees.
The UN’s Global Compact for Migration, developed in December 2018, recognises the interaction of climate change, environmental degradation and natural disasters and calls for a more coherent international approach using existing legal instruments. Inevitably, the lead must be taken by the developed nations but application requires collaboration and leadership. In the Sahel, for example, increasing climate-induced degradation will force many to seek a sustainable existence elsewhere. For some that is likely to be in the developed North. Application of the Compact may not be straightforward: for example, nine EU members did not support the Compact when it was signed. Reluctance such as this may further hinder any practical application of the Compact. So what can be done? And can it be done soon enough?
Displaced people need help now. No poor country can do this alone. External aid is fundamental but has to be targeted at, and provided in collaboration with local communities. Such aid is likely to involve specialised agencies focusing on practical development projects meeting urgent local needs such as improving traditional farming techniques by transferring environmentally appropriate good practice from elsewhere in the world. Or it may involve community-level economic development specifically to provide more employment and alternative income streams as a means of countering the need to migrate. There are already many aid organisations with the skills and experience to help. The scale of the problem, and the speed at which it is advancing, is such that the developed world must invest in up-scaling the necessary localised actions. There is an urgent need in the developing world to build resilience through the supported self-development of local communities.
The long-term goal of controlling climate change is, of course, imperative. But action is needed now to help those most affected. If the developed world were to take a self-interested view it might amortise the costs of immediate action against the much higher costs of migration in thirty years or so. It isn’t altruism. Economic migration is already causing political and social problems in formerly tolerant countries: imagine what a ten-fold increase might do.
Think of it as a modern environmental Marshall Plan that supports indigenous innovation through practical partnerships to transfer specific skills such as finding and delivering water, developing renewable energy, growing alternative crops, improving education and community development and a host of other sustainable projects in order to build the necessary long-term resilience. What must be avoided is any form of neo-colonialist exploitation. A country’s people are its greatest resource. Invest in them and you help the country to help itself.
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