Tuvalu may be the first country that the world loses to climate change. Two of its nine islands are on the verge of sinking beneath the ocean’s surface, giving both scientists and residents reason to believe Tuvalu might be uninhabitable by the next generation. At this point, the island nation is heavily reliant on foreign aid and most of its GDP is made up of donations from the United Nations and neighboring countries. It is classified as a resource poor, “least-developed country” that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels and warmer, stormier weather patterns are not only changing the landscape but also seeping into and tainting almost every aspect of life on the islands.

Fongafale Island: Sean Gallagher/The Guardian 

Tuvaluans are almost completely reliant on rainwater, yet droughts are becoming more frequent and the rising ocean is contaminating their underground water supplies. Higher daily temperatures are also putting people at higher risk of heatstroke, dehydration, and heat rashes. Fish near the islands, a staple of the Tuvaluan diet, are increasingly ingesting toxic microalgaes expelled by bleached coral, causing roughly 10 cases of poisoning every week. 2,000 Tuvaluans have already migrated to New Zealand alone.

The case of Tuvalu shows us what will become an increasingly significant contributor to the already major issue of human displacement: climate change. The World Bank Groundswell report concluded that given current trends, due to climate change alone, as many as 143 million people will be displaced by 2050. Even the models that look into optimistic, “climate-friendly” intervention show climate change will increase displacements. The 143 million scenario covers three regions that account for 55% of the developing world’s population and are also all major climate “hot spots”: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some of the emerging climatic stressors include floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, and changing sea levels. The infographic below demonstrates the impact of these stressors in the 10 largest displacement events of 2016, which were all climate-related. 

Image result for climate displacement

Infographics: climate change, migration and displacement: Overseas Development Institute

As this new category of migrants takes shape, there is disagreement over their classification. Some argue that trying to establish a new category of “climate refugees” will be far too bureaucratic of a process and would potentially create too narrow of a definition that would only provide partial solutions to address such a highly complex issue. There are additional concerns that labeling the migrants “refugees” may lead to a biased debate and exclude some categories of people who may not be able to prove a link between their migration and environmental factors. Some advocate for a “toolkit” of migration policies in addition to climate adaptation programs and more preventative action. 

It is crucial to remember that the people who will be most hard-hit by climate change and climate displacement are the world’s most vulnerable populations. Some of the aforementioned climatic stressors will only make it more difficult for people to access the food, water, and humanitarian help that may already have been difficult to reach. Climate displacement not only means families having to uproot their lives but will also lead to new displacement patterns and competition over already depleted natural resources, which may spark conflict between communities or compound pre-existing vulnerabilities

The Groundswell report warns that climate displacement will likely involve large numbers of people moving from rural regions to increasingly overcrowded urban areas. Without proper planning, this influx of migrants could lead to major conflict and instability. The World Bank urges cities to prepare infrastructure, social services, and employment opportunities, but this will likely be very difficult given that many of the countries that will experience higher levels of climate displacement are already lacking in these services and opportunities. In addition to preparation, climate adaptation programs can combat climate displacement, as some of the climatic stressors are manageable with the proper training and resources. For example, farmers could be trained and equipped for drought tolerance or homes could be built higher off of the ground to avoid flooding. Adaptation strategies are not only important because they may help minimize displacement but also because it is important to remember that most people don’t want to leave their communities and migrate in the first place.

Children play near the beach defences in Funafuti Lagoon: Sean Gallagher/The Guardian
The Tuvaluan government is fighting to keep Tuvalu habitable and has various plans, such as raising some of the land on the larger islands about 30 feet above sea level, constructing a floating island, and constructing seawalls to weaken the impact of the sea on the shoreline. Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, says evacuating the islands is the last resort. However, like thousands of others, Tuvaluan resident Enna Sione is planning to migrate, specifically for the sake of her kids. She has watched much of Tuvalu fade away: “I think one day we will disappear.”

Additional Reading: 

“One day we’ll disappear’: Tuvalu’s sinking islands 

Climate Change, Migration and Human Rights: Law and Policy Perspectives edited by Dimitra Manou, Andrew Baldwin, Dug Cubie, Anja Mihr, and Teresa Thorp

Figures at a Glance: Global Displacement

Climate Change and Disaster Displacement

Let’s Talk About Climate Migrants, Not Climate Refugees 

143 Million People Could Soon Be Displaced Because of Climate Change, World Bank Says

The Refugees the World Barely Pays Attention To

Written by [Refugees Welcome!] intern, Abby McIver.
Abby has worked with [RW!] since September 2019 on the Communications team. She is about to start her senior year at Boston University where she studies International Relations.

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