EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Plan A: Business as Usual: Streams of Environmental Refugees

We are familiar with political refugees who are escaping persecution and with economic refugees seeking jobs, but environmental refugees are not as well known. Such refugees include those whose land is turning to desert, those who are attempting to escape toxic environments, those whose wells are going dry, and those whose land is being submerged by rising seas. In the United States, the first large wave of environmental refugees was formed by those fleeing the Dust Bowl in the southern Great Plains during the 1930s.23

A generation later, the United States experienced the first toxic-waste refugees. Love Canal, a small town in New York, part of which was built on a toxic waste disposal site, made national and international headlines during the late 1970s. Beginning in 1942, the Hooker Chemical Company had dumped 21,000 tons of toxic waste, including chlorobenzene, dioxin, halogenated organics, and pesticides. In 1952, it closed the site, capped it over, and deeded it to the Love Canal Board of Education. An elementary school was built on the site, taking advantage of the free land.24

But during the 1960s and 1970s people began noticing odors and residues from seeping wastes. Birth defects and other illnesses were common. In August 1978, 239 families were permanently relocated at government expense. They were reimbursed for their homes at market prices. In September 1979, 300 more families were temporarily relocated. And in October 1980, 900 additional families received government money to move. In all, several thousand people were permanently relocated.25

A few years later, the residents of Times Beach, Missouri, began complaining about a rash of health problems. A firm spraying oil on roads to control dust was, in fact, using waste oil laden with toxic chemical wastes. Among other things, investigators discovered dioxin levels many times higher than the tolerance level. The federal government arranged for the permanent evacuation and relocation of more than 2,000 people.26

Early one morning in April 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Kiev exploded. It started a powerful fire that lasted for 10 days. Massive amounts of radioactivity were spewed into the atmosphere, showering communities in the region with heavy doses of radiation. As a result, the residents of the nearby town of Pripyat and several other communities in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were evacuated, requiring the resettlement of 350,400 people. As recently as 1992, Belarus was devoting 20 percent of its national budget to resettlement and the many other costs associated with the accident.27

The Dust Bowl refugees, the two U.S. evacuations from toxic waste sites, and the far larger resettlement from the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl were early examples of environmental migration, but they are small compared with what lies ahead if we continue with business as usual. Among the new refugees are those being forced to move because of aquifer depletion and wells running dry. Thus far the evacuations have been of villages, but eventually whole cities might have to be relocated, such as Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, or Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province. Originally designed for 50,000 people, Quetta now has 1 million, all of whom depend on 2,000 wells pumping water from a deep aquifer, depleting what is believed to be a fossil aquifer. Like Sana'a, Quetta may have enough water for the rest of this decade, but then its future will be in doubt. In the words of one study assessing the water prospect, Quetta will soon be "a dead city."28

Water refugees are likely to be most common in arid and semiarid regions where populations are outgrowing the water supply. Villages in northeastern Iran have been abandoned because the villagers could no longer reach water. A similar situation is found in villages in India, especially in the west and parts of the south. Countless villagers in northern and western China and in parts of Mexico may have to migrate because of a lack of water.

Spreading deserts are also displacing people. In China, where the Gobi Desert is expanding by 10,400 square kilometers (4,000 square miles) a year, the refugee stream is swelling. Chinese scientists report that there are now desert refugees in three provinces
Inner Mongolia (Nei Monggol), Ningxia, and Gansu. An Asian Development Bank preliminary assessment of desertification in Gansu province has identified 4,000 villages that face abandonment.29

In Iran, villages abandoned because of spreading deserts and a lack of water already number in the thousands. In the eastern provinces of Baluchistan and Sistan, some 124 villages have been buried by drifting sand. In the vicinity of Damavand, a small town within an hour's drive of Tehran, some 88 villages have been abandoned.30

Another source of refugees, a potentially huge one, is rising seas. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its early 2001 study, reported that sea level could rise by nearly 1 meter during this century, but research completed since then indicates that ice is melting much faster than earlier reported, suggesting that the possible rise may be much higher. Even a 1-meter rise in sea level would inundate half of Bangladesh's riceland, forcing the relocation of easily 40 million people. In a country with 144 million people, internal relocation would not be easy. But where else can they go? How many countries would accept even 1 million of these 40 million? Other Asian countries with rice-growing river floodplains would also face an exodus from the rising seas. Among them are China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Viet Nam.31

Coastal cities that would be vulnerable to rising sea level include New Orleans, New York, Washington, London, Cairo, and Shanghai. A 1-meter rise would put one third of Shanghai under water.32

Today, the refugee flows from wells that are going dry and deserts that are expanding are beginning. How large these flows and those from rising seas will become over time remains to be seen. But the numbers could be huge. In the quiet desperation of trying to survive, people often cross national borders. In some cases, this desperation drives migrants to their deaths—as tragically seen in the bodies of Mexicans who regularly perish trying to enter the United States by crossing the Arizona desert and in the bodies of Africans washing ashore in Spain and Italy when their fragile watercraft come apart as they try to cross the Mediterranean.33

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23. Timothy Egan, "Dry High Plains Are Blowing Away, Again," New York Times, 3 May 2002.

24. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Love Canal," Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, at www.epa.gov/r02earth/superfund/npl/0201290c.pdf, viewed 29 April 2003.

25. Ibid.

26. EPA, "Times Beach One-Page Summary," Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, at www.epa.gov/oerrpage/superfund/programs/recycle/success/1-pagers/timesbch.htm, viewed 29 April 2003.

27. Aleg Cherp et al., The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident (New York: U.N. Development Programme and UNICEF, 25 January 2002).

28. "Pakistan: Focus on Water Crisis," U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 17 May 2002.

29. Wang Tao, "The Process and Its Control of Sandy Desertification in Northern China," seminar on desertification in China, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental & Engineering Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, China, May 2002; Asian Development Bank, Technical Assistance to the People's Republic of China For Optimizing Initiatives to Combat Desertification in Gansu Province (Manila: Philippines: June 2001).

30. Iranian News Agency, "Official Warns of Impending Desertification Catastrophe in Southeast Iran," BBC International Reports, 29 September 2002.

31.IPCC, op. cit. note 8; Bangladesh inundation from World Bank, World Development Report 1999/2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, September 1999); number of potential migrants is author's calculation based on the distribution of population in Bangladesh.

32. Don Hinrichsen, "The Oceans Are Coming Ashore," World Watch, November/December 2000, p. 32.

33. Mexican migration from "Human Approach to Border," Denver Post, 24 April 2003; African migration from Ana M. Alaya, "Nine-mile Passage in Flimsy Boats is Full of Risks, Hopes," San Diego Union Tribune, 3 October 2002.


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