EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

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

Desert expansion in sub-Saharan Africa, principally in the Sahelian countries, is displacing millions of people—forcing them to either move southward or migrate to North Africa. A 2006 U.N. conference on desertification in Tunisia projected that by 2020 up to 60 million people could migrate from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and Europe. This flow of migrants has been under way for many years. 60

In mid-October 2003, Italian authorities discovered a boat bound for Italy carrying refugees from Africa. After being adrift for more than two weeks and having run out of 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 shared the boat, resembling what a rescuer described as “a scene from Dante’s Inferno.” 61

The refugees were believed to be Somalis who had embarked from Libya, but the survivors would not reveal their country of origin, lest they be sent home. 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 the resulting desertification destroying its pastoral economy. 62

On April 30, 2006, a man fishing off the coast of Barbados discovered a 20-foot boat adrift with the bodies of 11 young men on board, bodies that were “virtually mummified” by the sun and salty ocean spray. As the end drew near, one passenger left a note tucked between two bodies: “I would like to send my family in Basada [ Senegal] a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye.” The author of the note was apparently one of a group of 52 who had left Senegal on Christmas Eve aboard a boat destined for the Canary Islands, a jumping off point for Europe. They apparently drifted for some 2,000 miles, ending their trip in the Caribbean. This boat was not unique. During the first weekend of September 2006, police intercepted boats from Mauritania, with a record total of nearly 1,200 people on board. 63

For Central American countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, Mexico is often the gateway to the United States. In 2006, Mexican immigration authorities reported some 240,000 detentions and deportations, up 74 percent since 2002. 64

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.” 65

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 400–600 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. 66

With the vast majority of the 3 billion people to be added to the world by 2050 coming 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. 67

Advancing deserts are also displacing people, squeezing expanding populations into an ever smaller geographic area. Whereas the U.S. Dust Bowl displaced 3 million people, the advancing desert in China’s dust bowl provinces could displace tens of millions. 68

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 migrate abroad. 69

Another new source of refugees, potentially a huge one, is rising seas. The refugee flows from falling water tables and expanding deserts are already under way. Those from rising seas are just beginning, but the numbers could eventually reach the hundreds of millions, offering yet another reason for stabilizing climate and population.

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60. “Scientists Meeting in Tunis Called for Priority Activities to Curb Desertification,” UN News Service, 21 June 2006.

61. Alan Cowell, “Migrants Found off Italy Boat Piled With Dead,” International Herald Tribune, 21 October 2003.

62. Ibid.

63. Miranda Leitsinger, “African Migrants Die an Ocean Away,” Washington Post, 2 June 2006; Mar Roman, “A New Record For Africans Risking Boat Route to Europe,” Washington Post, 4 September 2006.

64. Ginger Thompson, “ Mexico Worries About Its Own Southern Border,” New York Times, 18 June 2006.

65. “ Mexico’s Immigration Problem: The Kamikazes of Poverty,” The Economist, 31 January 2004.

66. Frank Bruni, “Off Sicily, Tide of Bodies Roils Immigrant Debate,” New York Times, 23 September 2002; Flora Botsford, “Spain Recovers Drowned Migrants,” BBC News, 25 April 2002; “Boat Sinks Off Coast of Turkey: One Survivor and 7 Bodies Found,” Agence France-Presse, 22 December 2003; 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.

67. 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); U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2, p. 42.

68. 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.

69. 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.


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