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Bracing for the Flood

Setting the Agenda, 11 December 2009

By António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Earthquakes. Cyclones. Tsunamis. Floods. Mudslides. Natural disasters have doubled in frequency over the last two decades. Catastrophes have also become more intense, destructive and threatening to human life. In 2008 alone, some 36 million people were suddenly displaced by these phenomena.

While that is an enormous figure, it is dwarfed by the number of people whose security and livelihoods are being steadily undermined by the longer-term consequences of climate change: droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns, the degradation and desertification of the land, coastal erosion and salinification.

A particularly disturbing characteristic of these developments is their potential to ignite conflicts within and between states, especially in situations where communities are competing for increasingly scarce resources such as fresh water and grazing land.

Looking a little further into the future, citizens of small and low-lying islands will face the prospect of their countries crumbling into the rising sea, their nationalities, cultures and identities drowned.

Nobody can say exactly how many people will be displaced by natural disasters and climate change in the decades to come. Current predictions vary enormously: from tens of millions to over a billion.

What one can say with considerable confidence, however, is that the impact of climate change will be felt most strongly by those low-income countries that are least responsible for the phenomenon and least equipped to deal with it.

Within the developing world, moreover, disadvantaged women and men subsistence farmers and fishermen, slum and shantytown dwellers, members of ethnic and religious minorities will bear the brunt of the changes taking place in our ecosystem.

In these respects, addressing the challenge of climate change cannot be separated from the struggle to promote effective forms of development cooperation and to secure human rights for all.

We are now confronted with a number of global megatrends that interact with each other. In addition to climate change, they include population growth, migration, urbanization and food, water and energy insecurity, all compounded by the global economic crisis.

As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has frequently reminded us, climate change is at the fulcrum of these trends, multiplying the impacts of the others.

Attempting to deal with these trends individually would doom the effort to failure. They require a common response, which often eludes the international community given the fragmented nature of its analytical and policy tools.

Due to its relationship to the other trends, our response needs to begin with climate change. I would propose a three-pillared strategy.

First, as recognized by the Copenhagen climate change conference, there is a need for effective mitigation, particularly by means of measures that reduce carbon emissions and thereby slow the place of global warming.

Second, affected communities must be supported in their efforts to adapt to climate change, recognizing that in some instances, mobility may be one of the elements of adaptation.

And finally, timely and coherent responses are required in those situations where people are forced to flee due to the impact of climate change, both directly and as an accelerator of other drivers of displacement, such as natural disasters, food insecurity and conflict.

Recent experience suggests that the majority of people who are forced to move as a result of these phenomena are likely to remain within the borders of their own country. Primary responsibility for their protection and well-being will thus lie with the states concerned.

But if governments in developing regions are to meet the needs of displaced citizens, they will need strong and long-term support from the world's industrialized and industrializing states those countries that bear primary responsibility for the process of climate change.

Traditionally, the international community has responded to disasters and displacement in "humanitarian emergency mode," establishing camps, distributing food and water, building schools and clinics.

We must reconsider our approach. The billions of dollars spent on international relief over the past three or four decades have generally not achieved the sustainable improvements to local capacity that one would have hoped for.

At the same time, a growing proportion of the people affected by disaster and displacement will in future be found in urban areas, where it makes no sense to accommodate victims in camps or to establish separate and parallel services for them.

A development-oriented approach is now required in response to displacement, emphasizing the inclusion of the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society in efforts to ensure that they benefit from the livelihoods, services and security to which they are entitled.

People who have been displaced need a hand up, and not a hand out, if they are to find lasting solutions to their plight.




Climate Change

The earth's climate is changing, and that concerns us as it could lead to displacement.

UNHCR and Climate Change

Where people flee, UNHCR is there to help.

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

Climate change and displacement

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

This gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

After decades of hospitality after World War II, as the global political climate changed and the number of people cared for by UNHCR swelled from around one million in 1951, to more than 27 million people in the mid-1990s, the welcome mat for refugees was largely withdrawn.

Voluntary repatriation has become both the preferred and only practical solution for today's refugees. In fact, the great majority of them choose to return to their former homes, though for those who cannot do so for various reasons, resettlement in countries like the United States and Australia, and local integration within regions where they first sought asylum, remain important options.

This gallery sees Rwandans returning home after the 1994 genocide; returnees to Kosovo receiving reintegration assistance; Guatemalans obtaining land titles in Mexico; and Afghans flocking home in 2003 after decades in exile.

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

Pakistan: Fleeing to Safety

More than 1.5 million people flee their homes in North-West Pakistan.

Fighting between the army and Taliban militants in and around the Swat Valley in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province has displaced more than 1.5 million people since the beginning of May. Some of the displaced are being sheltered in camps set up by the government and supplied by UNHCR. Others - the majority, in fact - are staying in public buildings, such as schools, or with friends and extended family members. Living conditions are harsh. With the onset of summer, rising temperatures are contributing to a range of ailments, especially for villagers from Swat accustomed to a cooler climate. Pakistan's displacement crisis has triggered an outpouring of generosity at home. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is urging a "massive" assistance effort from abroad as well.

Pakistan: Fleeing to Safety

How Climate Change Impacts Human DisplacementPlay video

How Climate Change Impacts Human Displacement

As representatives from 190 countries head to Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference, UNHCR's top international protection expert explains how global warming impacts human displacement and what he hopes to come from the meeting.
New Report: Vulnerable to Climate ChangePlay video

New Report: Vulnerable to Climate Change

A new report co-published by UNHCR finds that climate change can make people more vulnerable and play a part in driving them into conflict areas and then exile.
2009 MeetingPlay video

2009 Meeting

The combined impact of the economic downturn with the global trends of climate change, urbanization, increased population and food insecurity on human displacement were on the agenda of the annual meeting of UNHCR's governing body.