In 2008, Margaret Okeke awoke one July morning to find the floor of her home sinking beneath her feet. During the night, heavy rains had flooded the gorge near her family’s compound.
Washing away soil along their path, the waters rapidly widened the bottom of the ravine – until the hillside where Okeke lived suddenly dropped out from beneath.
Okeke’s family – her husband, eight children, a co-wife and the co-wife’s six children – were left with nowhere to go.
The family’s struggle for refuge following the disaster is shared by millions worldwide displaced by changes in the environment, varying from dramatic events such as floods and erosion to gradual desertification caused by decreasing rainfall. The plight of these environmental migrants – defined by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) as persons who are obliged to leave their homes by “sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions” – represents a rapidly growing humanitarian and political dilemma.
In 2005, United Nations researchers estimated that by this year there would be 50 million environmental migrants worldwide, and the IOM projects the number will reach 200 million by 2050. After their compound was destroyed, the Okeke family headed to the local primary school for shelter, but the local government soon turned them away.
Okeke now rents a small plot of land together with six of her children in the neighbouring village of Agbiliba, also in Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra state. She parted ways with the co-wife and her children after they moved to a nearby city.
Less than a year after the disaster, her husband, Edward Okeke Okonta, died of a heart attack, leaving the family without a provider or an inheritance. The one-time owner of fields of cocoa yam, cassava and maize was buried beneath a small heap of dirt in their host community’s compound. Okeke had to beg her hosts to provide space for his grave.
The leading driver of environmental migration is climate change. Desertification, rising sea levels and extreme rainfall events are increasing in severity and scale, threatening unprecedented numbers of homes and livelihoods. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that episodes of extreme rainfall had become more frequent in his area, and Oliver Ujah, an environmental researcher at the African Institute for Applied Economics and a native of southeast Nigeria, expects that “the menace of flooding will continue to exacerbate.”
The magnitude of environmental displacement is matched by the invisible status of those affected. Environmental migrants have no recognised rights, legal classification or institutions to support them, and many suffer extreme poverty even before they are displaced. The result is a rapidly growing population with nowhere to go, while governments remain blind to their struggles.
“I don’t believe that when natural forces destroy your home that you have a right against anybody,” said Michael Egbebike, commissioner of the environment in Anambra, Okeke’s home state. He noted, “I’m not sure if I know of anybody that has been displaced.”
Patricia Ndum, a lifelong resident of Isiakpuenu, and other community elders claim that more than 60 families have been displaced since 1974, when the first major erosion incident created the gully gradually consuming their village. “We are begging for government to give us another site for people to relocate,” said Samuel Ezeokafor, a former Isiakpuenu resident who lost his home to erosion. But following the 2008 episode that displaced 11 families including Okeke’s, he said state assistance was limited to delivery of food and clothing. Ezeokafor, displaced from Isiakpuenu in 1986, said that all the government provided to his family then was mosquito nets.
Poor countries like Nigeria experience the vast majority of displacement linked to climate change, although climate change is primarily caused by centuries of carbon emissions by the world’s leading industrialised powers. Regions facing greatest impacts include river deltas such as the Ganges in Bangladesh and the Mekong in Vietnam, dry areas such as the Sahel in West Africa, and small island states such as the Maldives and Tuvalu. Most environmental migrants relocate within the borders of their home states, ensuring that they don’t attain refugee status.
Displaced populations threaten political stability in regions that already face severe challenges in governance. The gravity of the risks posed by environmental displacement has sparked calls for an international response. Without appropriate policy action, Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration Section at the United Nations University, anticipates a humanitarian crisis in coming decades.
Perhaps the most well-known mechanism for addressing the needs of environmental migrants is the UN climate change convention. The initial convention – approved by all leading developed nations, unlike follow-ups such as the Kyoto Protocol – commits wealthy countries to assisting vulnerable developing countries with the costs of adapting to climate change.
The disappointing Copenhagen negotiations of December 2009 included a provision that could set this process in motion. Buried in a draft accord reached by a key working group is language calling on nations to adopt “measures to enhance understanding and cooperation related to national, regional and international climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation.”
The accord calls on developed countries to provide financial support for this process in the developing world. Activists call for a new international convention to address the problem directly. David Hodgkinson, an Australian lawyer who has taken up the cause of environmental migrants, founded the group “A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change.”
As proposed by Hodgkinson, the convention would operate through request by state signatories; to receive aid, a nation would voluntarily seek en masse designation of those displaced by climate change. Hodgkinson argues that the UN climate accord lacks the institutional bodies to serve displaced persons effectively and has too much political baggage to gain necessary levels of state support. “We’re concerned with providing an instrument that we believe can be accepted by states,” said Hodgkinson.
But from pledges for UN financing to the creation of a new convention, any such international agreement remains distant on the horizon. For the people of Isiakpuenu and countless other communities, the pace of environmental change outstrips the pace of official response. As erosion wears away the land, remaining residents face the risk that their existence will become invisible – vanishing through the land’s gaping cracks and in the eyes of laws and institutions that deny their plight. At his office in Anambra’s capital city of Awka, Commissioner Egbebike said that the government provides for those whose lives are disrupted in the immediate aftermath of flooding and erosion, preventing any long-term displacement. “Maybe once in a while we might get one or two persons displaced,” Egbebike insists. “But I have yet to see.”
The struggles of Margaret Okeke and millions like her also remain unseen from the capitals of the developed world – where environmental displacement remains on the back burner even as the crisis simmers.
Sasha Chavkin received his MS degree in 2010 from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported on the environment from Nigeria, Bolivia and Nicaragua. © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization