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What does Covid-19 mean for people displaced by climate change?

By Alex Randall on April 9, 2020

The main square of Nui Island is still under water over a month after Cyclone Pam created huge waves.

We don’t yet know how a city in lockdown deals with a sudden climate-driven disaster like a typhoon strike, but the world will inevitably find out in 2020.

Previously published on Le Monde Diplomatique

At least 15 million people are displaced every year by climate- and weather-related disasters, and this year much of that displacement will take place in the wider context of a pandemic.

When people are displaced by sudden, climate-related event they tend not to move far. They usually flee to immediate places of safety or to evacuation centres. During a pandemic, however, this displacement comes with incredibly dangerous complications. Cities that are in lockdown will have to decide whether or not to attempt to stop people fleeing. The potential for confusion and violence is huge.

City authorities will also have to decide whether it is even possible to provide emergency evacuation spaces — those municipal buildings (schools, sports centres etc) in which large groups of people are crammed during a weather emergency. At the moment such spaces would present an incredible public health risk, given the way Covid-19 spreads.

The measures needed to cope with a sudden episode of displacement are exactly the opposite of those required to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Consider how after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, nearly 20,000 people sheltered in the Louisiana Superdome sports stadium. Similarly, after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, hundreds of people were forced to live in a small school for weeks. These situations would now present a catastrophic public health risk. The measures needed to cope with a sudden episode of displacement are exactly the opposite of those required to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The vast majority of climate-linked displacement takes place in countries in the global South. Over 2020, it is likely one of the key barriers to southern countries halting the spread of Covid-19 will be episodes of human displacement driven by climate- and weather-related disasters.

Sudden displacement is not the only way climate change, human movement and Covid-19 collide — many people across the developing world also migrate to cities to find work as a means of coping with slowly unfolding climate impacts like drought. As urban economies grind to a halt, many will find themselves trapped in the drought-stricken countryside. Others will be forced to leave the cities to which they have moved, and return to environmentally vulnerable rural areas.

In many cities lockdowns have caused the closure of thousands of businesses that employ migrants. But the drivers are global too. As richer countries shutter their high street shops, retailers halt the manufacture of goods like clothes and electronics which are primarily produced in cities in the global South.

In Bangladesh erosion, sea level rise and repeated cyclone strikes have made farming ever more difficult. Many thousands of people have migrated from the vulnerable delta region to the capital city, Dhaka. A significant number are employed in the garment industry. As production slows, they will face the difficult decision of returning to their families in the delta, or finding other ways to survive in the city. In India thousands of migrant workers have already left cities after lockdowns left them unemployed. Many returned to the rural areas they left because of climate impacts.

Debt relief to poorer countries must form part of how this crisis is dealt with.

When people migrate for work, they very often send money home to their families. This is just as true of people who migrate internally as a way of coping with drought. The money sent home gives the family in the drought-hit area a source of non-agricultural income, insulating it financially as farming income dries up. These payments are often invested in ad hoc climate adaptation measures that allow families to accommodate reduced and variable patterns of rainfall. As cities go into lockdown and people are laid off, payments back to rural families will dry up too, leaving them less able to cope with the drought and removing a vital economic safety net in poorer rural areas.

Further, while some wealthier countries have been able to compensate workers for lost wages and bail out struggling companies, such options may not be possible for poorer countries, leaving millions struggling to cope with the direct impacts of the pandemic, and also forcing them to return to dangerous, climate-vulnerable places.Debt relief to poorer countries must form part of how this crisis is dealt with. Richer countries must not use a crisis at home to slash aid and development funding. Even while developed countries are dealing with their own crises, they must continue to offer support to countries in the global South.

But this crisis also necessitates a rethink of how climate-adaptation funding is deployed. Millions are already using migration as a way of adapting to climate change. They have done this using their own resources, usually without the help of any formal climate change adaptation programme. Those individual acts of climate adaptation are now threatened by Covid-19.

 

By Alex Randall

Alex manages the Climate Change and Migration Coalition – an alliance that exists to challenge the lack of long-term strategies to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change. Before joining Climate Outreach, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has also worked for the Public Interest Research Centre on their Values and Frames project. He co-founded Cheat Neutral, a spoof offsetting company, and UN Fair Play, an organisation that works with small island states at international climate change negotiations.

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