By 2010 the world may need to cope with as many as 50 million people who have fled their homeland - not for political or economic reasons - but because the environment has been so badly altered that it cannot sustain life. A statement released by the United Nations to mark UN Disaster Reduction Day (October 12) highlights the need to recognize and extend support for this new category of refugee.
More people are displaced by environmental disasters than by war, according to research by the Red Cross. That reality is borne out by this weekend's earthquake in Pakistan.
The death toll from this a once-in-a-century event has reached 23,000 and is rising, and it has left 2.5 million people in the region without shelter.
Faiza Zamnahamad, director of the relief organization Mercy Care, says support is urgently needed to supply basic human needs. "People are expected after a crisis such as this to be on the move for about six weeks," she says. "This is the typical phenomenon that one sees in a catastrophe of this size. So we want to give water to people to drink to limit the outbreak of water-born illnesses."
The widely publicized disaster has prompted an influx of aid from the global community, according to Janos Bogardi, director of the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security. "If we can move swiftly in and give them a new start where they are, then they may stay in the area," he says. "But if you just take a volcano eruption, which is covering fertile lands with lava and ashes, you are certainly no choice but to relocate them and in this case they become environmental refugees."
Environmental-related migrations are most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, but they also affect millions of people in Asia and India. Meanwhile, the United States is witnessing increased pressure from victims of mismanaged and deteriorating soil and water conditions in Mexico and Latin America.
The UN's Janos Bogardi says these refugees suffer from the impact of gradual environmental change -- global warming, sea level rise, air and water pollution and more intense storms, floods and droughts that degrade the land. "You lose vegetation cover. You lose soil fertility and ultimately you may lose its (composition)," he says. "This is a slow process, but unfortunately a process that is very difficult to reverse once ultimate damage was done."
Mr. Bogardi explains that soil formation takes thousands of years. " So if an area is denuded after a while it has to be abandoned." He says despite deteriorating soil and water conditions, "many people try to (stay) because this is their homeland, the land they have entitlement to, but they cannot carve out any more livelihood. It is economically not sustainable."
Janos Bogardi says the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security is calling on the global community to recognize the plight of environmental refugees and to work together to lessen the impact of environmental disaster.
United Nations Disaster Reduction Day