Review of Book on Climate Refugees

Collectif Argos, Climate Refugees. Singapore: MIT Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-262-51439-2
The ten journalists of the French Collectif Argos published this book in the hope that the testimonies of those most severely affected by global warming—climate refugees—will move readers to help those in need and to prevent further displacement. The stories and photographs of climate refugees in Bangladesh, Chad, China, and Nepal, the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and in the United States and Germany tell in graphic detail of the effects of our accelerating destruction of the world.
What and who are climate refugees? Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Abdul Hamid grew up near the market town of Munshiganj Bazaar in south-western Bangladesh. Hamid’s home region is flat, like all of Bangladesh, criss-crossed by gigantic rivers, and bordering the sea. One third of the country is regularly flooded during the monsoon season. Although the 165 million Bangladeshis are used to annual flooding, global warming has dramatically increased the magnitude of floods, led to drought in the country’s northwest, and “tides driv[ing] saltwater farther north, contaminating fields and groundwater along the way” (55). Increased salinity forced the farmers around Munshiganj to abandon rice paddies and cattle herds and compete for jobs on shrimp farms or go fishing in the beautiful but dangerous Sundabarns, one of the world’s largest mangrove forests. When fishing in the crocodile and tiger infested Sundabarns became too dangerous, Hamid decided to leave his wife and two children and move temporarily to the megalopolis of Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, a twelve-hour bus ride north of his birth place. Following his brother-in-law and an increasing number of young men from his home region, Hamid spends ten-hour days as a rickshaw wallah. With the earned income, he wants to build his own shrimp farm back home. But Maudood Elahi, who studies internal migration, knows that the odds are against Hamid: “It’s a classic scenario. The head of the family arrives first. At the outset, he sends money back to his family, thinking that one day he’ll return and settle with them, but usually the opposite happens” (64). Dhaka, however, is also exposed to the effects of global warming. Internal migration, Elahi believes, is not a long-term solution. Migration to neighbouring countries like India, faced with their own population problems, could lead to violence. In his view, “countries with larger land areas will have to change their immigration policies. If we believe that climate change is a global problem, then we must look for global solutions” (64-65). One major obstacle, however, is that the 1951 Geneva Convention defining refugees excludes climate refugees (65). The authors of this book make a powerful case against this narrow and out-dated definition. They also make clear that climate refugees are only the canaries in the mine: within a generation, we will all be affected by global warming.
The essay on Bangladesh is followed by sixteen photographs. In this chapter more so than in most others, the photographs constitute an essay in itself. While the text about Bangladesh tells the story of men, the photographs tell the stories of women. Their lives too have changed, but in different ways. Zohura, a peasant woman, explains, “Every garden used to have its own fresh-water well, but now the water is salty and we can’t use it anymore. We have to walk to the bazaar [three kilometres away through thick mud] or take a boat across the river to get drinking water. It’s exhausting” (59). The photographs tell of this dramatic change in women’s lives, depicting them in their daily chores of carrying water, fixing buildings, chopping fire wood, or working at shrimp farms. Text and images are equally successful at documenting people’s attempts to preserve their livelihood and dignity in the face of danger and insecurity.
The first to be affected by global warming are people like Hamid and Zohura, men and women whose lives are already precarious and are now pushed “from poverty to destitution, from a rooted existence to exile” (14). But global warming affects everyone. From the low-lying archipelagos of the Maldives, Polynesia, and the Halligen in the North Sea to the Himalayas, from developing countries to the highly industrialized world, the lives and livelihoods of children, women, and men of all ages are already troubled. Already, and increasingly more so in the future, they are dealing, as Nobel Prize winner and vice president of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Jean Jouzel writes, with “increased precipitation in high latitudes and decreased precipitation in subtropical regions, changing wind patterns, the likelihood of more intense tropical cyclones, heat waves, heavy precipitation, melting of the snow cover, reduction of sea ice and an irreversible rise in sea level” (8). Hurricane Katrina brought this message home to Americans in 2006, especially the long-term displaced or permanently resettled people of New Orleans. The 15,000 melting glaciers in the Himalayans, leading to overflowing lakes and breaking dams, are threatening not only the villagers and ecosystems of large valleys but also one of the world’s most important fresh-water supplies. In China, 2,500 square kilometres turn into desert each year, displacing large numbers of people.
Climate-induced displacement is a collective phenomenon. Sometimes, whole villages become climate refugees, especially if they are located on islands. The community of Shishmareef, Alaska, is located on an island in the Bering Strait that is slowly sinking. Eventually, the families will have to relocate, whether individually or as a village. Ensuring the continued residence of the 300 inhabitants of the ten Halligen, tiny islands rising barely above the water line of the North Sea and regularly submerged during storms or full moon, is ensured through massive subsidies by Germany and the European Union. In the case of the Maldives, an archipelago of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, a whole nation may be displaced if sea levels continue to rise. To deal more effectively with the increasing storms and rains during the dry season, the 1998 El Niño that damaged two thirds of the coral reef and the disastrous 2004 tsunami, the government has devised a plan to concentrate the population of 400,000 on 80 rather than the current 200 inhabited islands. These are, however, stop-gap measures; in a worst-case scenario the whole population would have to be resettled to Australia or another country. The 10,000 people of Tuvalu, a scattering of tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean, face the same issues as Maldivians, but at an accelerated pace. The children of Tuvalu are growing with the knowledge that they will eventually have to leave.
If we do not act quickly, there will be, according to United Nations estimates, 150 million climate refugees by 2050. According to the IPCC, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by flooding. The warning of Hubert Reeves, an astrophysicist and president of the French environmental group Ligue ROC, is ominous: “Current immigration patterns provide only a minor glimpse of the problems that will be triggered by climate-change migration” (5). While much needs to be done, Collectif Argos argues strenuously to have climate refugees accepted as a category of refugee under the United Nations mandate. That is currently not the case. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, seems to put its head in the sand. A search for the term “climate refugee” on the UNHCR website yielded seven hits, all of which referred to documents in which the reality of climate refugees was outright denied. It can only be hoped that António Guterres, the current High Commissioner, reads this book.
Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg