EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Plan B Updates
January 28, 2004
Troubling New Flows of Environmental Refugees
Lester R. Brown

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 were sharing the boat in what a rescuer described as "a scene from Dante's Inferno."

The refugees were believed to be Somalis who had embarked from Libya. 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 destroying its pastoral economy.

Although the modern world has extensive experience with people migrating for political and economic reasons, we are now seeing a swelling flow of refugees driven from their homes by environmental pressures. Modern experience with this phenomenon in the United States began when nearly 3 million "Okies" from the southern Great Plains left during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, many of them migrating to California.

Today, bodies washing ashore in Italy, France, and Spain are a daily occurrence, the result of desperate acts by desperate people in Africa. And each day hundreds of Mexicans risk their lives trying to cross the U.S. border. 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 perish in the punishing heat of the Arizona desert.

Another flow of environmental refugees comes from Haiti, a widely recognized ecological disaster. In a rural economy where the land is denuded of vegetation and the soil is washing into the sea, the people are not far behind. Attempting to make the trip to Florida in small craft not designed for the high seas, many drown.

The U.S. Dust Bowl refugees were early examples of environmental migration, but their numbers will pale compared with what lies ahead if we continue with business as usual. Among the new refugees are people 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.

The World Bank expects Sana'a, where the water table is falling by 6 meters a year, to exhaust its remaining water supply by 2010. At that point, its leaders will either have to bring water in from a distant point or abandon the city.

Quetta, originally designed for 50,000 people, now has 1 million inhabitants, all of whom depend on 2,000 wells pumping water deep from underground, depleting what is believed to be a fossil or nonreplenishable aquifer. Like Sana'a, Quetta may have enough water for the rest of this decade, but then its future is in doubt. In the words of one study assessing the water prospect, Quetta will soon be "a dead city."

With most of the nearly 3 billion people to be added to the world's population by 2050 living in countries where water tables are already falling and where population growth swells the ranks of those sinking into hydrological poverty, water refugees are likely to become commonplace. They will be most common in arid and semiarid regions where populations are outgrowing the water supply. Villages in northwestern India have been abandoned because overpumping had depleted the local aquifers and villagers could no longer reach water. Millions of villagers in northern and western China and in parts of Mexico may have to move because of a lack of water.

Spreading deserts are also displacing people. In China, where the Gobi Desert is growing 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 provincesInner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Gansu. An Asian Development Bank preliminary assessment of desertification in Gansu province has identified 4,000 villages that face abandonment.

A photograph in Desert Witness, a book on desertification by Chinese photographer Lu Tongjing, shows what looks like a perfectly normal village in the western reaches of Inner Mongoliaexcept for one thing. There are no people. Its 4,000 residents were forced to leave because the aquifer was depleted, leaving them with no water.

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 alone, some 124 villages have been buried by drifting sand. In the vicinity of Damavand, a small town within an hour's drive of Tehran, 88 villages have been abandoned.

In Nigeria, 3,500 square kilometers (1350 square miles) of land are converted to desert each year, making desertification the country's leading environmental problem. As the desert takes over, farmers and herdsmen are forced to move, squeezed into the shrinking area of habitable land or forced into cities.

Another source of refugees, potentially a 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 reported earlier, 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 densely populated 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, including China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Viet Nam, could boost the mass exodus from rising seas to the hundreds of millions.

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.

The rising flow of environmental refugees is yet another indicator that our modern civilization is out of sync with the earth's natural support systems. Among other things, it tells us that we need a worldwide effort to fill the family planning gap and to create the social conditions that will accelerate the shift to smaller families, a global full-court press to raise water productivity, and an energy strategy that will cut carbon dioxide emissions and stabilize the earth's climate.

Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute

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