South Asia again confronts displacement by Mother Nature’s wrath

Published on Monday, 20 May 2013

Published by Bart Edes on Monday, 20 May 2013

Thankfully, the eventual impact of Cyclone Mahasen on South Asia was softer than feared before it struck land this past week. However, the storm still left dozens dead and caused the precautionary evacuation or subsequent displacement of one million persons living in coastal areas around the Bay of Bengal.  

Cyclones are nothing new to this part of the world, and some have taken a huge toll on human life. The 1991 cyclone that walloped the Chittagong district of southeastern Bangladesh and Cyclone Nargis, which slammed Myanmar’s southern delta in 2008, each killed more than 130,000. The lower death toll this time around had much to do with the storm’s weakening, but also to improved disaster preparedness in the countries in the path of Mahasen.  

Yet if climate scientists are right, South Asia will have to brace itself for more frequent and more ferocious storms in the years ahead. Among the potential impacts are substantial human displacement and environmentally driven migration. Governments and development agencies need to take more resolute action to address this risk.

South Asia - already susceptible to extreme weather because of its long coastlines, low-lying lands, and wide river deltas faces a future of greater vulnerability due to a high degree of exposure to environmental risks and high population density, particularly along the coasts. The region’s poor and marginalized people are at particular risk due to their living conditions, which include flimsy housing in dangerous locations along rivers prone to flooding, and flat shorelines that suffer most from storm surges and battering winds.  

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 11.6 million people were displaced last year in South Asia due to storms and floods. This comprises more than 9 million displaced in India, 1.9 million in Pakistan, and 600,000 in Bangladesh.  The Centre also reports that between 2008 and 2012, India and Pakistan were among the five countries in the world with the most people displaced by disasters associated with natural hazard events. 

The risk of displacement in South Asian countries is expected to grow in line with rising populations, rapid urbanization, and exposure of vulnerable communities, homes and livelihoods to weather and climate-related hazards.  In addition to the threat presented by storms and flooding, climate change is expected to raise sea levels over time.  David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development has forecast that the two countries in the world with the largest populations at risk from sea-level rise between 2008 and 2050 are India and Bangladesh. 

Weather and climate-related displacement threatens to undo gains in poverty reduction being made by development, while heightening the risks and needs of those who are forced to flee their homes for higher ground. What can governments do to limit such displacement, which can lead to environmentally driven migration? ADB has highlighted several recommendations in its report, Addressing Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific. Three areas for action are disaster risk management, building community resiliency, and improving urban infrastructure and services.

In the first instance, governments need to strengthen disaster risk management at the local, regional and national levels. This includes improving early warning systems and response mechanisms, as well as elaborating funded action plans.  Bangladesh has systematically integrated disaster risk reduction into its sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies, and supported programs like cluster housing, a community-driven initiative that places a group of houses at an elevated location above flood waters. As Cyclone Mahasen approached the country, tens of thousands of volunteers gave out early warnings, provided practical advice, helped people to relocate, and prepared to give first aid and distribute relief items. 

Governments can also strengthen the resiliency of communities to withstand and recover from extreme environmental events and changing climatic conditions. A valuable tool in this regard is social protection, which can include cash grants for the very poor, guaranteed labor programs, and livelihood development initiatives. Encouraging public and private sector provision of micro-insurance and catastrophe bonds can help to reduce the risks borne by the most vulnerable. These measures would provide environmentally threatened populations with greater financial security and income to afford sturdier homes and physical defenses. In the case of farmers, accessible insurance instruments would help them survive when crops are wiped out by excessive rainfall - or lack thereof. 

Finally, the physical and social infrastructure of cities must be substantially upgraded. Asia has been undergoing an unprecedented wave of urbanization, which has been accentuated by migration spurred in part by environmental factors. The carrying capacity of many urban areas has been severely stretched. Greater public and private resources must be mobilized to provide improved access to transport, water, sanitation, education, and health by growing city populations.

Environmental events are already uprooting people around South Asia. By taking actions now, governments can reduce the likelihood of future humanitarian crises and maximize the possibilities that people can either remain in their communities or – should environmental conditions make that impractical – be given the opportunity to relocate to a more secure place with prospects of decent employment and improved living standards. 

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