Each year throughout the May to October monsoon season, Myanmar experiences increased rainfall and flooding. This is a part of life. However, in late July and early August 2015 record-level rainfall, worsened by tropical Cyclone Komen, led to unprecedented levels of flooding and subsequent landslides, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.
As record numbers of people around the globe continue to flee war and persecution, there has been growing public concern about whether the world is ready to protect millions more who, in the decades to come, may be uprooted by floods, storms, sea level rise, and other climate change effects. While the issue of what to do about “climate refugees” is by no means new, groundbreaking progress was made last week when more than 110 governments met in Geneva to endorsea “Protection Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displacement in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change. While the event received little fanfare, its importance should not be underestimated. Many times more people displaced each year by floods, storms and other extreme weather events than are uprooted by conflict, and climate change is expected only to increase these numbers.
Just over three years ago, the Zaatari refugee camp was established to accommodate the growing number of Syrian refugees who were fleeing to the neighbouring country of Jordan. Located around 70 kilometres from the capital city of Amman and 30 kilometres from the Syrian border, Zaatari occupies a space of some seven square kilometres and currently houses around 80,000 refugees.
Being forced to flee your home is a life-altering experience. Packing a bag, bidding farewell to your land and livelihood, and leading your children into the unknown – all of this can indelibly divide a life history into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ Many people never get over the trauma of flight, and never give up hope that they will one day return to the land and people they love.
Last week, intercommunal fighting in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, resulted in over 40 deaths and caused more than 40,000 people to flee to various displacement camps sites around the city. The violence erupted following the murder of a Muslim taxi driver, pitting armed Muslim and Christian groups against each other. The streets also filled with protesters calling for the ouster of interim president Catherine Samba-Panza, who was in New York at the time for the United Nations General Assembly.
This week, in a stifling hot room in Malaysia filled with more than 50 Rohingya refugees, my own work with the community came full circle. I was sitting among dozens of people who had fled the very same displacement camps in Sittwe, Myanmar that I had visited twice before in 2012 and 2014. When I arrived in September 2012, Rohingya were still entering the camps and there was almost no clean water, food, or shelter. People were literally starving. It was the worst situation I had ever witnessed.
All eyes are on Washington this week as Pope Francis makes his historic first trip to the U.S. This morning, he’ll address lawmakers on Capitol Hill, marking the first time a Pope has addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Climate change is undoubtedly one if the issues on his agenda. Earlier this year the pope released his Laudito Si encyclical in which he laid out the moral case for greater protection of the environment, natural resources, and the Earth's climate.
Earlier this year, the world watched in both horror and sadness as thousands of desperate Rohingya who had fled persecution in Myanmar were abandoned on boats without food or water. As countless numbers died of dehydration and starvation each day, neighboring countries quarreled over who should take them in and how limited their assistance would be. Finally, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to accept up to 7,000 Rohingya, but only on the condition that they would be resettled out of their countries within a year.
This week I’ll be traveling to Myanmar where widespread flooding and landslides brought on by severe rain and a tropical cyclone have resulted in the worst disaster since Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. Of the country’s 14 States, 12 have been severely affected. More than 1.6 million people lost their homes and more than 1.4 million acres of farmlands were inundated.
The needs of refugees and displaced people are outstripping the resources and capacities of the existing humanitarian system. The World Humanitarian Summit is an initiative of the UN Secretary-General to seek solutions to improve the humanitarian system, thereby reducing human suffering. It will be held on May 26-27, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.
The 18 month, Russian-backed rebellion of eastern Ukraine has displaced more than 1.4 million people, cost nearly 7,000 lives, and brought the economy of eastern Ukraine ̶ the economic and industrial heartland of the country ̶ to a standstill. Two million civilians remain in homes devastated by shelling on the line of contact, what is considered the frozen frontline of the conflict.
Over the course of the past decade, millions of Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes. Prior to 2014, approximately one million Iraqis were internally displaced, mostly due to the sectarian conflict of 2006 – 2008. Since January 2014, millions more have been uprooted by government-militant violence and the advance of the group known as the Islamic State or ISIS.
The 18-month, Russian-backed rebellion of eastern Ukraine has displaced more than 1.4 million residents from the eastern Donbas region into central and western Ukraine. It has cost nearly 7,000 lives, brought the economy of eastern Ukraine ̶ the economic and industrial heartland of the country ̶ to a standstill, and is putting increasing stress on a government bent on addressing the challenges of political reform, widespread corruption, as well as economic and structural adjustments.
Since the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram began scaling up its attacks on civilians, an estimated 1.3 million Nigerians have been internally displaced and at least another 150,000 have taken refuge in neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The exodus of Nigerians fleeing the country’s northeastern region for government-sponsored camps or host communities has intensified the pressure on already scarce natural resources.
The civil conflict that has engulfed the Central African Republic for more than two years has displaced nearly 20 percent of the 4.6 million population, both internally and in neighboring countries. In the past year, certain parts of CAR have stabilized, including the capital, Bangui, and international donors have begun to turn their attention toward early recovery programs and planning for national elections. But the crisis is not over. Areas of conflict and volatility have simply shifted as rebel groups and militias relocate throughout the country. Strong humanitarian support from donors is essential to mitigate the impact of continuing violence, and aid agencies must take steps to ensure that the aid systems in place are as effective as possible.
In a research paper released last week by climate change guru Dr. James Hansen, he and 16 fellow scientists make the case that warming-induced melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is happening much more quickly than previously anticipated. Needless to say, the idea that parts of Manhattan or Miami could be underwater in as soon as 50 years has sparked a good deal of alarm – and controversy, as the tricky business of climate modeling always does. But the fact that scientists still can’t say with certainty exactly how soon, or under what warming scenarios, major changes to the climate system are going to occur has made one thing evident: we’re simply not prepared – physically, psychologically, or policy-wise – to deal with that reality anytime soon.