• Opinion by Kwan Soo-Chen, David McCoy (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
  • Interpress service

Many places will also become uninhabitable. As a consequence, many people will have to move from their current homes, either temporarily or permanently.

The term ‘climate mobility‘ is used to describe three forms of climate-induced displacement of populations: displacementwhere people are forced to leave their homes; migration, where movement is to some extent voluntary; and planned movewhere the movement is proactively instigated, monitored and executed by the state.

In reality, these three forms of mobility overlap and can occur simultaneously, making it difficult to accurately quantify and monitor trends over time. Furthermore, when considering the effects of climate change on human mobility, there is a need to consider the inability or unwillingness of communities to move despite being at risk of harm, loss and damage.

There are several driving forces behind “climate mobility”. The most obvious is the direct destruction of housing and infrastructure by acute severe weather events and floods. Less obvious drivers include the more chronic impact of sea-level rise, soil erosion, erratic weather patterns, salinization and deforestation on water supplies, agriculture and livelihoods.

Data on climate mobility are scarce and it is difficult to attribute any case of displacement or forced migration to just one set of factors. Political and economic factors can often be significant co-factors. Similarly, movements and migration attributed to economic forces or armed conflict may have some underlying connection with environmental degradation.

According to 2022 Global Report of Internal Displacements (GRID) by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva, there were 38 million individual cases of displacement in 2021 globally, with 14.3 million (37.6%) from East Asia and the Pacific.

These figures include people displaced more than once. More than half of these displacements (23.7 million) globally, and 95% in the East and Pacific region were due to weather-related disasters, and most of these were concentrated in LMICs.

In it Asia and the Pacific225.3 million internal displacements caused by disasters have been recorded from 2010 to 2021, with 95% weather related and the other 5% geophysical. The Southeast Asian countries with the highest incidence of displacement due to natural disasters in 2021 were Philippines (5,681,000), Indonesia (749,000), Vietnam (780,000) and Myanmar (158,000).

The two biggest causes of disaster-related displacement in the region are floods and storms which were responsible for over 80% of disaster-related displacements between 2008 and 2020.

Attempts are also being made to monitor the extent of planned relocations. For example, one study identified 308 planned relocations globally in 2021, with more than half in Asia (160). This included 29 cases in the Philippines and 17 in both Vietnam and Indonesia.

Importantly, however, half of all these “planned relocations” involved rural populations including indigenous people, and half of them had already been displaced by emergency weather events. The number of households involved in each planned move varied from as few as four households to 1,000 households, with the majority involving less than 250 households.

Although Southeast Asia is known as a “hot spot” for acute severe weather events, it is also vulnerable to the effects of more chronic environmental degradation. For example, the large low-lying coastal areas of the region – such as in Vietnam and Thailand and around the Mekong Delta – are already affected by sea level rise and its impact on settlements through coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

Although projections of the magnitude of future climate mobility are uncertain, significant growth is indicated. We have already seen that the number of internal transfers increased from 3.9 million per year in 2008-2010 to 6.4 million per year in 2019-2021.

According to World Bank Groundswell Reportthe number of internal climate migrants in East Asia and the Pacific will reach 49 million by 2050, representing 2% of the regional population. The lower Mekong subregion of Southeast Asia is expected to see between 3.3 million and 6.3 million new climate migrants between now and 2050 (1.4% to 2.7% of the country’s population) depending on different scenarios.

The hotspots threatened by emigration include the coastal areas of Vietnam (threatened by sea level rise) and central Thailand and Myanmar (threatened by water scarcity and reduced agricultural productivity).

Even if most climate mobility occurs within a country, it will exist increasing pressure on national borders as climate change worsens. However, there appears to be little modeling of future scenarios involving transboundary migration due to climate change and environmental degradation.

Such pressure can be expected around land bores within the Greater Mekong subregion affecting Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. However, given the region’s physical geography, transboundary migration at sea could become a problem as the effects of climate change worsen.

It is clear that this will involve both international security and humanitarian challenges. Currently, however 1951 Refugee Convention does not entitle people fleeing environmental disasters or climate-related threats to be recognized as refugees, although the term “climate refugees” is increasingly used in popular and academic discourse.

The non-binding Global Compact on Migration which was developed in line with SDG goal 10.7 on migration policy and adopted by the majority of UN Member States in December 2018 is a good start to strengthen international cooperation to address the challenges and human rights-related aspects of cross-border migrants from climate change.

The negative health effects of forced displacement from one’s home are significantbut will also depend on the form of migration (temporary or permanent, short or long distance, internal or cross-border) and the social, economic and political conditions in their homes and new environments.

In addition, there is different health needs and effects for populations on the move and those who are settled, as well as for receiving communities and those who remain. Although some risks and threats will be reduced through movement, many will face new health risks in their new environments, including lack of economic opportunities, as well as the mental health risks associated with social and cultural loss.

Climate change is a current and urgent issue in Southeast Asia. Even if everything is done to mitigate further global warming, millions of people in the region will likely be forced to move from their current settlements in the coming decades.

Whether we are adequately prepared for this is at best an open question. What is clear, however, is that governments’ responsibility towards both current and future climate migrants is great.

Crucially, health systems will need to provide for both the physical safety and health of vulnerable populations, as well as the burden of mental illness caused by forced migration.

Kwan Soo-Chen is a postdoctoral fellow and David McCoy is a research leader at United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH).

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service