Home Commentary No place for climate-induced displacement

No place for climate-induced displacement

With every typhoon, drought, and other calamities comes the reality of thousands, if not millions, of people displaced

It is time to reflect on one of the most overlooked impacts of the climate crisis — displacement or forced migration.

With every typhoon, drought, and other calamities comes the reality of thousands, if not millions, of people needing to evacuate or their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

Stories of long-term concerns and the well-being of those displaced being ignored or forgotten are becoming too common.

The possibility of climate change impacts is becoming more severe due to lack of adequate solutions. People end up not only being forced from their homes but also being deprived of the ability and resources to exercise their human right to pursue development, including living in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

For a highly-vulnerable country like the Philippines, this reality is more pronounced.

In 2021 alone, 23.7 million people worldwide were displaced by disasters, or 62 percent of all displacements. About 22 million of these were due to extreme weather events, such as storms and floods.

The Philippines recorded 5.7 million disaster-induced displacements throughout the year, more than any other country in the world except China. Perhaps the worst of these is triggered by super-typhoon Rai (Odette), which caused more destruction to property than any storm in the nation’s history aside from Haiyan (Yolanda).

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The impact of Rai resulted in at least 255,000 Filipinos being forced from their homes. It was reported that even months after it hit, thousands were still unable to return home while others experienced slow recovery due to limited access to basic necessities and social services.

While the link between the climate crisis and displacement are becoming evident in the aftermath of disasters, the same cannot be said regarding the long-term ramifications, especially in the context of slow onset events.

A 2018 study shows that less than one percent of Filipinos migrated overseas due to the living environment, while five percent relocated within the country for the same reason.

Factors related to their living environment is the main reason for moving away in the next five years by over 10 percent of Filipinos, while 22 percent cited it as the main reason for not moving.

These numbers indicate several notable trends.

There is a growing long-term awareness for many to find safer, more secure communities to live in and avoid potential disasters, including those triggered by the climate crisis.

However, the higher percentage of those not wanting to move due to the living environment points to the prevailing culture of not wanting to uproot the lives of their families from familiar conditions and the sense of daily normality.

Yet these figures do not fully capture the realities of forced migration in the Philippines.

As the climate crisis affects numerous aspects of living, it could be indirectly influencing other main motivations for moving, such as a change in employment and housing-related concerns.

The challenge in accurately assessing how much slow onset events like sea level rise and land degradation influence living conditions and behavioral patterns leading to relocation is worsened by the lack of available data.

There is no question that those forced from their homes become more vulnerable to social and economic effects of disasters. For example, women, children, and youth usually have lesser capacities to adapt to new environments, especially if burdened with limited access to food, water, and electricity.

The disruption through lack of capacity for work or schooling and separation from their social circles could further hinder their ability to recover from disasters.

To address issues related to climate-induced displacement in the Philippines, investments must be made in collecting relevant data and monitoring the conditions of those affected. This would help establish more defined links between the climate crisis and the factors that trigger forced migration, especially in the context of slow onset events. The outcomes of these efforts must be integrated into existing adaptation and disaster risk reduction management strategies.

Local stakeholders must also be capacitated to reduce their vulnerabilities and reduce, if not eliminate, the likelihood of displacement.

Support should be provided for implementing existing climate and disaster-related plans and programs. National government agencies must also improve communication to communities of existing policies and resources.

The Philippine government must emphasize addressing climate-induced displacement in its current policies and programs. These issues are vital to the national narrative on loss and damage, and must be integrated as such.

This emphasis should be reflected in more investments in resilient physical infrastructures, risk transfer mechanisms for social protection, mechanisms for holding accountable those involved in non-durable, non-resilient housing, and other measures that protect the most vulnerable from further harm.

During the tenth year since the landfall of Haiyan on Philippine soil, it is unfortunate that the same kind of stories are still being seen. We should not get used to hearing these stories and dismiss them as just another day in the era of the climate emergency.

There should be no place for the normalization of the plight of the displaced. Addressing loss and damage must include preventing anybody else from losing their homes, livelihoods, and life as they knew it.

John Leo is deputy executive director for programs and campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific.

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