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How climate change is multiplying risks for displacement

Burkina Faso. High Commissioner meets IDPs hosted by local community

How climate change is multiplying risks for displacement

Global heating is compounding threats for people already living with conflict and insecurity, further driving displacement around the world.
2 December 2020
A man walks across arid land near Kaya, Burkina Faso.

Until two years ago, David Cruz* had his own land in Nicaragua where he raised cattle and chickens and grew tomatoes and chiles. But that way of life was under threat even before his role in protests made him a target for persecution.

Over the years, the climate in his region of Nicaragua had become drier and more unpredictable. When it did rain, it was often torrential and damaged David’s crops.

“My crops failed,” he said. “And because the authorities had basically declared me an ‘enemy’, they made it impossible for me to get loans that I would have needed to be able to plant again.”

Climate change alone did not force David to abandon his farm and flee to Costa Rica, but for him and growing numbers of people around the world, it was a significant factor driving his displacement.

As our world heats, the impacts are uneven. But vulnerable people living in some of the most fragile and conflict-affected countries are experiencing some of the most severe effects from deepening droughts to flooding.

From Nicaragua to Niger, people in rural areas are struggling to grow the crops that used to sustain their families or to find pasture for their animals. The search for greener pastures is exposing them to new risks when they move to urban areas, and even bringing them into conflict with others.

After over a decade of watching his herd of cattle being depleted by erratic rainfall in south-western Niger, Djouba Fedou, 60, began moving them from his village, near the border with Mali, to other areas where they could graze. But his animals were now crossing farmland and they sometimes trampled crops, infuriating the farmers.

"Our parents did not witness these situations."

“The local authorities used to call me on a weekly basis because cattle were found in farmers’ fields and I had to pay money for that,” he said. “Sometimes I even sold cows to [pay fines and] free myself and my children.

“Our parents did not witness these situations.”

By the time the violent insurgency, which had made its way into Niger from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, reached Djouba’s village, he had already given up breeding his cattle. He and his two wives and 10 children fled to a site in Intikane in the Tahoua region, where internally displaced Nigeriens live alongside refugees from Mali. They received shelter and food at the site, but without his cattle, Djouba has little hope of being able to return to a life of self-sufficiency.


In 2019, weather-related hazards triggered some 24.9 million displacements in 140 countries around the world.

Most displacement linked to climate change is taking place within national borders. People fleeing extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones and floods, for example, tend to stay as close to home as possible and return when floodwaters have receded. Lengthier displacements and movement across international borders are more likely when additional factors are at play.

In Central America’s so-called 'Dry Corridor' – a stretch of increasingly parched mountainous farmland running from Guatemala to northern Costa Rica – the first move for many small-scale farmers fleeing drought and devastating storms is to a nearby city. But cities in the region can be inhospitable places for rural newcomers. A shortage of jobs and housing often force them into slum areas where they are vulnerable to street gang violence and extortion, and to flooding when the next storm comes.

The two consecutive hurricanes that barrelled through the region in November 2020 are expected to compound hardships for people whose survival was already precarious, particularly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Increased movements across borders are now more likely, including of people fleeing persecution and violence,” said Giovanni Bassau, the regional representative for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Central America, following the first storm, Hurricane Eta.

Climate change itself is magnifying the impact of other threats that drive displacement – worsening poverty and intensifying pressures on resources and governance in ways that can stoke conflict and violence.

The Sahel region, where Niger is located, is one of the areas of the world that has been hardest hit by climate change. Temperatures in the region are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.

Just as rainy seasons are growing shorter and dry seasons lasting longer, the population is growing rapidly and more land is being turned to crop farming, further shrinking the land available for pastoral herders like Djouba.

Land and water disputes between farmers and pastoralists have been exploited by extremists seeking a foothold in the region. The Central Sahel countries of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are now at the epicentre of one of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises with close to 1.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 365,000 refugees having fled violence, including over 640,000 this year alone.


The confluence between climate change and insecurity is also becoming apparent in Afghanistan, where steadily rising temperatures are bringing with them changes in rainfall, snowmelt patterns and an increased risk of flash flooding.

In 2018, a drought decimated the livelihoods of tens of thousands of households in the rural northwest of the country.

Ghulam Sakhi, 45, and his family of 10, were living in a mountainous area of Ghor Province, where they relied on winter rain and snow to fill their well, cultivate their land and grow grass for their animals. When the rain and snow failed to arrive three years ago, “we lost everything,” he said.

"We sold our animals for a third or a quarter of their real price."

“We sold our animals for a third or a quarter of their real price. When that money was finished, we had no choice but to leave to somewhere we could get a living.”

For the past two and a half years, Ghulam and his family have been living in a flimsy shelter at a site for internally displaced people south of Herat City where they are dependent on shrinking humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, insecurity in their home region has worsened, further reducing their prospects for return.

“When I was living there, the security was not good; there was drought and the Taliban. But now there are more Taliban and they are equipped with better weapons,” said Ghulam.

“I am praying to God for peace so my children can study and feel safe and comfortable.”


After people flee their homes, or even when they cross borders, they are not necessarily safe, whether from the effects of climate change or other factors.

In Afghanistan, Ghulam’s family lives on a site that becomes water-logged each winter, causing their shelter to collapse. This winter will be particularly tough as the COVID-19 pandemic has deprived the family of the small income the older children were earning as casual labourers.

In Niger, meanwhile, the Intikane site where Djouba and his family sought safety was attacked by 50 armed men on motorbikes earlier this year. Three people were killed and Djouba was among thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who were temporarily forced to flee once again.

And after months of working odd jobs in Costa Rica, David had just secured a steady job as a security guard when the country went into lockdown and he was laid off. He is now months behind on his rent.

In response to such challenges, UNHCR is stepping up efforts to keep those like David, Djouba and Ghulam safe. Under a Strategic Framework on Climate Action developed in 2020, it is looking at existing international and regional laws and agreements safeguarding the forcibly displaced to see how they can be applied to those uprooted amid a changing climate.

'Climate change is the defining crisis of our time and it particularly impacts the displaced'

The organization is also seeking to enhance the resilience of displaced people to climate and other environmental risks by, for instance, ensuring refugee sites are established in secure, sustainable locations and by mitigating environmental degradation through reforestation and other efforts.

The Refugee Agency is also looking to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions and minimize any negative impacts of its operations on the environment. One focus will be on transitioning to sustainable, and preferably renewable energy sources.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an extra layer of vulnerability to people already living with the impacts of climate change, insecurity, and displacement, the concerted global response may offer some important lessons for how we respond to these emerging challenges, said Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s Special Advisor on Climate Action.

“It shows that if we want to mitigate the impact of a disaster, we need to be prepared to act quickly and in a holistic manner. If we ignore it, then we will face serious consequences.”

*His name has been changed to protect his identity.

Writing by Kristy Siegfried, with additional reporting by Austin Ramírez Reyes in San José, Costa Rica, Naik Mohammad Azamy in Herat, Afghanistan, and Boubacar Younoussa Siddo in Niamey, Niger.