After The Floods, Climate Refugees


After years of drought came the floods. It happened in East Gippsland in 1998: parched hillsides running with water, dams turning from puddles into lakes, dry river banks crumbling into the flow.

Last year it was western Victoria’s turn. In the town of Charlton, home to around 1100 people, years of drought ended with a flood in September 2010. In January this year, Charlton flooded again and this time it was much worse, with 300 houses inundated.

Alicia Guild, a schoolteacher from the nearby town of Donald who now works in Melbourne, was part of the effort to put Charlton back on its feet. Evacuees from Charlton stayed in her family’s home in Donald for five weeks, and Guild volunteered with the Department of Human Services and St Vincent de Paul in helping those whose houses were underwater.

"In times like these everyone pulls together and helps out," she told New Matilda. It’s an indication not only that the communities in the area are close but also of the ability of Australian authorities and communities to handle natural disasters of this scale.

But how well will countries that are poorer and more vulnerable than Australia handle extreme weather conditions as these events grow in strength and increase in frequency?

A flood like Charlton’s is financially and emotionally costly. Yet this flood pales into obscurity when placed in a global perspective; it becomes a sharp reminder of the broader regional threats of climate change.

Recent figures released by the Norwegian Refugee Council show that 42 million people were newly displaced worldwide during 2010 as a result of natural disasters, up from 17 million in 2009. Of those displaced in 2010, 38 million lost their homes due to sudden climate events such as floods. The remainder were displaced due to geophysical events like earthquakes and tsunamis.

There is growing concern in bodies such as the UNHCR, the Asian Development Bank and the Norwegian Refugee Council that the numbers of people displaced by climate events are on the rise.

"We do expect that displacement will increase in the future," says the Norwegian Refugee Council’s climate change adviser, Lisetta Trebbi. "We not only expect that the displacement will increase as a result of an increase in sudden-onset natural disasters, but in the long term even more due to slow-onset disasters, such as drought."

Whether or not climate change will cause more severe weather events has been up for debate. Some commentators have sought to make the point that individual weather events cannot be directly blamed on climate change.

Francois Gemenne, Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris, recently raised this issue in an online discussion through the Asian Development Bank.

"In the current state of science, it is still difficult to attribute any specific climate event to climate change," Gemenne says. "This is especially the case for floods. What is important, however, is that climate change will intensify the frequency and magnitude of the floods."

In an outlook that goes beyond individual events to the bigger picture, there is a clear link between climate change and increasingly severe and frequent climatic events.

According to Nic Maclellan, a journalist and researcher who has spent considerable time in the Pacific region, the Pacific islands are already feeling the effects of climate change.

"In 2008-09 there was major flooding in Queensland, but it hit a number of neighbouring Pacific countries," Maclellan says. "That year families [in Fiji]were faced with the dilemma: do they provide food for the kids or do they pay the school fees? They chose food. So you can see very much the connection between extreme weather events like floods and cyclones, and damage to development efforts."

The focus in Australia is currently on efforts to mitigate climate change through the introduction of a carbon tax. However, Pacific Island governments are also trying to adapt to the immediate effects of climate change.

"Yes, they want greenhouse gas reductions," Maclellan says, "but when it comes to climate financing, they want some funding to go into concrete programs around things like food, water, coastal management, village protection and disaster response. These are pretty immediate sorts of things."

For Maclellan, the possible implications for Pacific nations should be part of the current debate over a carbon tax in Australia. He also points out that there are broader migration flows to be concerned about.

"There is also going to be movement in Asia," he says, "and the numbers are huge compared to what we’re talking about with a country like Tuvalu which has only 10,000 people or Kiribati which has 100,000."

The UNHCR recently urged the international community to redefine its response to climate-induced displacement in the light of expected increases in natural disaster events. Even though most people displaced by climate events remain internally displaced and do not cross international borders, Trebbi says that "with general increased displacement, we do expect some more cross-border displacement to take place as well".

One of the most high-pressure regions in terms of climate change and migration is South and Southeast Asia. The region is home to over 2 billion people and is the site of a number of climate change "hot spots", such as the mega-delta of Bangladesh.

"These regions are therefore also at risk when it comes to displacement," says Trebbi. "Asia is the region with the most sudden-onset displacement today."

A recent report from the Asian Development Bank states that: "Human displacement resulting from climate change will pose a major threat to the sustainable growth and security of Asia and the Pacific unless measures are taken soon."

Anthony McMichael, professor of Population Health at the Australian National University, agrees that climate change is likely to lead to increased flows of displaced people in the Asia-Pacific region, but he declined to speculate directly on the possible effects of this on Australia.

"These complex, multivariate, demographic processes decades hence cannot be accurately foreseen or quantified," McMichael says. "Climate change is only one of the major stresses that are now building up pressures in this direction."

Australia is not immune to these stresses, particularly in relation to depletion of water supplies as farmers, the mining industry, urban areas and ecosystems compete for limited water. The problems of drought and flood in Australia are likely to be exacerbated by global warming, just as they are exacerbated across the Pacific.

For Maclellan, it’s important that the implications of climate change in the broader Asia-Pacific region are recognised in the debate about a carbon price here in Australia. He says that it would not be good enough for Australia and other wealthy nations to merely guarantee their support should Pacific nations become uninhabitable. He argues that they must also play a role in ensuring that this scenario does not actually eventuate.

"People in the Pacific don’t want to move," he says, "and there’s a responsibility for industrialised nations like Australia to act on emissions reductions to avoid the problem."

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