EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Environmental Refugees on the Rise

As natural systems deteriorate, people are forced to migrate, sometimes to other countries. In mid-October 2003, Italian authorities discovered a boat carrying refugees from Africa bound for Italy. Adrift for more than two weeks and without fuel, food, and water, many of the passengers had died. At first the dead were tossed overboard. But after a point, the remaining survivors lacked the strength to hoist the bodies over the side. The dead and the living sharing the boat resembled what a rescuer described as “a scene from Dante’s Inferno.” 60

The refugees were believed to be Somalis who had embarked from Libya, but they would not reveal their country of origin. We do not know whether they were political, economic, or environmental refugees. Failed states like Somalia produce all three. We do know that Somalia is an ecological basket case, with overpopulation, overgrazing, and desertification already destroying its pastoral economy. 61

For Central American countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, Mexico is often the gateway to the United States. In 2003, Mexican authorities arrested and deported some 147,000 illegal immigrants, up from roughly 120,000 the previous year. 62

In the city of Tapachula on the Guatemala-Mexico border, young men in search of jobs wait along the tracks for a slow-moving freight train moving through the city en route to the north. Some make it onto the train. Others do not. The Jesús el Buen Pastor refuge is home to 25 amputees who lost their grip and fell under the train while trying to board. For these young men, says Olga Sánchez Martínez, the director of the refuge, this is the “end of their American dream.” A local priest, Flor María Rigoni, calls the migrants attempting to board the trains “the kamikazes of poverty.” 63

Environmental refugees also flow to the United States from Haiti, a widely recognized ecological disaster. In a rural economy where the land is stripped of vegetation and the soil is washing into the sea, the people are not far behind. Many drown in rough waters when attempting to make the trip to Florida in small craft not designed for the high seas. 64

Today, bodies washing ashore in Italy, Spain, and Turkey are a daily occurrence, the result of desperate acts by desperate people. And each day Mexicans risk their lives in the Arizona desert trying to reach jobs in the United States. Some 400 to 600 Mexicans leave rural areas every day, abandoning plots of land too small or too eroded to make a living. They either head for Mexican cities or try to cross illegally into the United States. Many of those who try to cross the Arizona desert perish in its punishing heat—scores of bodies are found along the Arizona border each year. 65

Although the modern world has extensive experience with political and economic refugees, we are now seeing a swelling flow of refugees driven from their homes by environmental pressures. This harkens back to the Dust Bowl era some 70 years ago, when nearly 3 million Americans were displaced. 66

The United States is again contending with environmental refugees but now for different reasons. In Alaska, where the temperature rise in recent decades of 2–4 degrees Celsius (4–7 degrees Fahrenheit) is perhaps as great as anywhere in the world, thousands of indigenous peoples will almost certainly be forced to evacuate their villages as a result of ice melting and flooding. Newtok, a village of 340 Yupik Eskimos on Alaska’s west coast, is being overrun by a swelling torrent of ice melt water from the Ninglick River. An engineering study estimated the cost of relocating the village at a minimum of $50 million—or $150,000 per villager. If the Newtok Indians do not move, they risk drowning in the floodwater. Although relocating villages is not a simple matter, there are 23 other Alaskan villages waiting to be relocated. 67

With the vast majority of the nearly 3 billion people to be added to the world by 2050 living in countries where water tables are already falling, water refugees are likely to become commonplace. They will be most common in arid and semiarid regions where populations are outgrowing the water supply and sinking into hydrological poverty. Villages in northwestern India are being abandoned as aquifers are depleted and people can no longer find water. Millions of villagers in northern and western China and in parts of Mexico may have to move because of a lack of water. 68

Advancing deserts are also displacing people, squeezing expanding populations into an ever smaller geographic area. Whereas the U.S. Dust Bowl displaced a few million people, the abandonment or partial depopulation of 24,000 villages in China’s dust bowl provinces is displacing tens of millions. 69

In Iran, villages abandoned because of spreading deserts or a lack of water already number in the thousands. In the vicinity of Damavand, a small town within an hour’s drive of Tehran, 88 villages have been abandoned. And as the desert takes over in Nigeria, farmers and herders are forced to move, squeezed into a shrinking area of productive land. Desertification refugees typically end up in cities, many in squatter settlements. Many more migrate abroad. 70

Another upcoming source of refugees, potentially a huge one, is rising seas. The largest potential displacement would come in low-lying Bangladesh, where even a 1-meter rise in sea level would not only inundate half of the country’s riceland but would also force the relocation of easily 40 million people. In a densely populated country with 142 million people, internal relocation would not be easy. But where else can they go? How many countries would accept even a million Bangladeshi refugees displaced by rising sea level? Other Asian countries with rice-growing river deltas and floodplains, including China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Viet Nam, could also suffer a mass exodus from rising seas. 71

The refugee flows from falling water tables and expanding deserts are just beginning. How large these flows and those from rising seas will become remains to be seen. But the numbers could be huge, offering yet another reason for stabilizing climate and population.

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60. Alan Cowell, “Migrants Found off Italy Boat Piled With Dead,” International Herald Tribune, 21 October 2003, cited in Lester R. Brown, “Troubling New Flows of Environmental Refugees,” Eco-Economy Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, January 2004).

61. Ibid.

62. “Mexico’s Immigration Problem: The Kamikazes of Poverty,” The Economist, 31 January 2004; calculation by author.

63. “Mexico’s Immigration Problem,” op. cit. note 62.

64. Norman Myers, “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century,” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 29 April 2002, pp. 609–13, cited in Brown, op. cit. note 60.

65. Frank Bruni, “Off Sicily, Tide of Bodies Roils Immigrant Debate,” New York Times, 23 September 2002; “Boat Sinks Off Coast of Turkey: One Survivor and 7 Bodies Found,” Agence France-Presse, 22 December 2003; Flora Botsford, “Spain Recovers Drowned Migrants,” BBC News, 25 April 2002; Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, “Trade Brings Riches, But Not to Mexico’s Poor,” Washington Post, 22 March 2003; Robert McLeman and Barry Smit, “Climate Change, Migration and Security,” Commentary No. 86 (Ottawa: Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 2 March 2004); Arizona Desert deaths from “Humane Approach to Border,” Denver Post, 24 April 2003; Ralph Blumenthal, “Citing Violence, 2 Border States Declare a Crisis,” New York Times, 17 August 2005.

66. U.S. Dust Bowl from Yang Youlin, Victor Squires, and Lu Qi, eds., Global Alarm: Dust and Sandstorms from the World’s Drylands (Bangkok: Secretariat of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, 2002), pp. 109–22.

67. Jonathan Shaw, “The Great Global Experiment,” Harvard Magazine, November–December 2002, p. 35; Tomas Alex Tizon, “Can One Man Turn the Tide? As Erosion Eats Away at Tiny Newtok, Alaska, the Relocation of Its Yupik Eskimo Villagers and Their Homes Has Fallen to the Local Grocer,” New York Times, 28 October 2004.

68. Abandoned villages in India from Tushaar Shah et al., The Global Groundwater Situation: Overview of Opportunities and Challenges (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 2000); population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

69. Wang Tao, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), Chinese Academy of Sciences, e-mail to author, 4 April 2004; Wang Tao, “The Process and Its Control of Sandy Desertification in Northern China,” CAREERI, Chinese Academy of Sciences, seminar on desertification, held in Lanzhou, China, May 2002.

70. Iranian News Agency, “Official Warns of Impending Desertification Catastrophe in Southeast Iran,” BBC International Reports, 29 September 2002; Government of Nigeria, op. cit. note 47, p. 6.

71. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contributions of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); World Bank, World Development Report 1999/2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 100; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1.


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