Rio+20: Connecting the Dots Between Disasters and Displacement

Today, world leaders are gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). They will be joined by participants from the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations, and other interested groups.

Known as Rio+20, the conference is a follow on from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (The Earth Summit) held 20 years ago, also in Rio. The Earth Summit considered new approaches to economic growth, social equity issues, and ways to ensure environmental protection.

On the agenda this time around are seven priority areas: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, disaster readiness, and oceans.

Notably lacking, however, is one of the biggest future challenges developing countries face: the impact of environmental changes (including environmental degradation and climate change) on displacement. While the conference’s issues brief on Reducing Disaster Risk and Building Resilience discusses the need for countries to better prepare for natural disasters, it fails to consider how disaster risk reduction interventions can prevent and mitigate displacement from these events.

To debate disaster risk reduction without considering vulnerable populations and their propensity to be displaced in disasters, ignores some of the key components of disaster risk reduction and building resilience.

For example, vulnerable populations are usually located in the most disaster-prone areas, and have a limited access to resources (like secure housing) that might protect them against displacement. Vulnerable populations are not only more likely to be displaced, but are also at the greatest risk of prolonged displacement following a disaster.

This past March, RI travelled to Colombia and interviewed people who were still displaced 15 months after heavy rains and flooding forced them to flee. Colombia had a disaster risk management plan in place before the flooding started and was considered a leader in disaster risk management in the Latin American region. But its plan failed to protect the three million Colombians who were either displaced or otherwise affected by the disaster. The scale of displacement exposed serious flaws in the system - most notably the lack of local implementation and capacity.

Better disaster preparedness measures are available, and the Rio+20 delegates should make use of them. Some include:

  • Improved infrastructure. For example, the use of flood- or earthquake-proof housing.
  • Land use planning that prevents people from building their homes in disaster-prone areas.
  • Improved watershed management and flood-control.
  • Increased capacity of civilian disaster management authorities at the local, provincial, and national levels, which ensures that all communities receive assistance to prevent displacement.
  • Risk assessments that indicate which communities are at risk of displacement.
  • Disaster preparedness measures such as early warning systems, which allow communities to prepare for disasters and mitigate displacement.
  • Education and meaningful community consultation that empowers communities to adopt adaption and mitigation strategies. For example, sharing strategies with communities about ways to make their shelters more disaster-resilient through maintenance.
  • Risk management and vulnerability reduction, including programs that promote sustainable livelihoods and social protection.

Despite the failure of Rio+20 to formally consider displacement in its discussion of disaster risk reduction and resilience, various NGOs (including the Norwegian Refugee Council) have organized side events to discuss these issues. We are hopeful that the information shared at these meetings will eventually reach the conference floor – giving this vital issue the attention it deserves.

Davina Wadley is a former fellow with the Refugees International climate displacement program.