It is now widely accepted that climate change will lead to both incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption. The impacts of climate change, which include increased droughts, desertification, and sea-level rise, along with the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events, will lead to a growing number of climate refugees around the world.

Although climate change is a global phenomenon that will impact upon critical life support systems such as weather and water cycles everywhere, certain regions of the world have already been identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as extremely vulnerable to climate change. These include low-lying and small island developing states, North Africa and the Bay of Bengal.

According to a recent study commissioned by the EU “Climate Change and International Security”, Africa is one of the continents most vulnerable to climate change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. In North Africa, increasing drought, water scarcity and land overuse will degrade soils and could lead to a loss of 75% of arable, rain-fed land. The Nile Delta could be at risk from both sea-level rise and salinisation in agricultural areas while 12 to 15% of arable land could be lost through sea-level rise in this century with 5 million people affected by 2050.

Already today, climate change is having a major impact on the conflict in and around Darfur.  In the Horn of Africa reduced rainfall and increasing temperatures will have a significant negative impact on a region highly vulnerable to conflict. In southern Africa, droughts are contributing to poor harvests, leading to food insecurity in several areas with millions of people expected to face food shortages. Migration in this region, but also migration from other regions through Northern Africa to reach Europe is likely to intensify. In Africa, and elsewhere, climate change is expected to have a negative effect on health, in particular due to the spread of vector-borne diseases further aggravating tensions. 

The UN estimates that there will be up to 50 million environmental refugees by 2010, and much needs to be done to protect this particular group of refugees, who is not yet recognized through international conventions or treaties.

The International Organisation for Migration has the following working definition on environmental refugees, as ‘persons or groups who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country.’

As one should seek to prevent rather than cure, it is also crucial to deal with the root causes of forced migration and conflict. Adaptation to climate change in developing countries must be made a top priority along with mitigation.

A broad approach to climate change adaptation is needed. Hopefully, climate change will foster a new and stronger sense of solidarity. It provides an opportunity for cooperation in addressing global issues such as conflict and displacement.
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