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Displacement in a Changing Climate: Localized humanitarian action at the forefront of the climate crisis

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The adverse impacts of climate change are already affecting the lives and the livelihoods of many communities in all parts of the world. National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are at the forefront of the climate emergency: they help communities prepare for, respond to and recover from climate-related disasters.

This report contains case studies of 11 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in these countries: Australia, Fiji, Germany, Honduras, Iraq, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Samoa, Tuvalu and Yemen. It highlights their role in preventing, adapting to and responding to the adverse impacts of climate-related displacement. It complements other reports on human mobility and displacement in the context of disasters and climate change produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

These 11 cases studies show that the climate crisis is already happening now. Communities across the world are already experiencing the devastating humanitarian impacts of climate-related displacement. These impacts are being experienced due to sea level rise, drought, extreme heat, floods and storms. It is also clear that the most vulnerable and the most marginalized people are being hit the hardest.

This is vividly illustrated by the case study of the Tuvalu Red Cross Society. People living in low-lying small island states in the Pacific such as Tuvalu are often mentioned in discussions on the long-term impacts of climate change.
Such countries may be rendered uninhabitable – if not entirely submerged – by the end of the century without a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. This underscores the urgency to enhance mitigation efforts. However, the case study of the Tuvalu Red Cross Society illustrates the need to also focus on the here and now – including the immediate drought conditions in the country.

In 2020, 30.7 million people were internally displaced by disasters, over three times more than conflict and violence (9.8 million people). Of those displaced by disasters, 98 percent faced weather and climate hazards.1 At present, the vast majority of people who are moving because of the impacts of climate change are displaced within their own country. People and communities moving across borders due to the effects of climate change are smaller in numbers, but face a critical legal protection gap. Since December 2020, Angolan citizens started crossing the border into Namibia in search of food, water, healthcare and employment because of the drought in their country. At the request of the Namibian government, the Namibia Red Cross Society has been providing Angolan citizens with food, shelter, blankets, mattresses, clothing, and healthcare, irrespective of their legal status.

In November 2020, Honduras was hit by two consecutive hurricanes – Eta and Iota – which caused massive displacement and significant damage and destruction to crops and harvests. Families already facing economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic and endemic poverty saw their livelihoods undermined. Some 937,000 people in the country were newly displaced by disasters in 2020 and over 3 million people are now suffering from food insecurity. These adverse impacts of climate change have contributed to people’s decisions to leave their homes and join the ‘migrant caravans’ headed towards the North of the continent, crossing countries such as Guatemala and Mexico. In response to the ‘migrant caravan’ formed in January 2021, the Honduran Red Cross Society provided migrants with water, face masks, healthcare, information about safety, security and COVID19 prevention measures, as well as a means of communication to keep in touch with family members – at key points along their migratory journey.

Many communities worldwide are affected by concurrent and consecutive disasters and displacement, leaving them with little time to recover before the next catastrophe strikes. In March 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall in Mozambique with devastating impacts: some 1.5 million people were affected, with 140,000 people displaced to evacuation centres or makeshift shelters and 230,000 houses damaged. Six weeks later, Cyclone Kenneth hit the country. Combined, the two cyclones killed at least 648 people, injured nearly 1,700 people and damaged more than 270,000 homes and more than 4,200 classrooms. The Mozambique Red Cross Society provided humanitarian assistance to both internally displaced people and host communities.

Climate change exacerbates existing challenges and underlying vulnerabilities, forcing communities to face compounding crises. Iraq is currently experiencing water shortages and drought; the effects of climate change collide with geopolitical tensions, the legacy of sanctions and conflict, and chronic water mismanagement. Local communities are at risk of being displaced because of the worsening drought, as well as water and food insecurity. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society is providing food and cash assistance to around 36,000 people, as well as access to healthcare and water and sanitation to more than 40,000 people. In Yemen, the protracted armed conflict intensified in 2020, bringing the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to 4 million. The already dire humanitarian situation was further compounded in 2020 by extreme flooding, which devastated entire communities and fuelled the spread of diseases, such as cholera, dengue, malaria and diphtheria. More than 300,000 people were affected, most of them IDPs who had previously fled conflict areas, leading to secondary displacement. Yemen Red Crescent Society volunteers provided health and psychosocial support, and distributed food, personal hygiene items, shelter kits and other essential items to affected people.

The climate crisis is already happening now in all parts of the world, including in high-income countries. For example, Australia was devastated by bushfires which threatened lives and livelihoods in 2019 and 2020. Thousands of people had to leave their homes in many parts of the country. The Australian Red Cross supported the evacuation of around 50,000 people and provided them with grant support. In Germany, a series of storms in summer 2021 caused rivers to burst their banks, destroying entire villages and killing 180 people. Over 30,000 people were displaced. The German Red Cross provided support to affected communities, including drinking water, food, accommodation, electricity, mobile healthcare and psychological help.

These examples demonstrate that climate-related displacement can have devastating impacts. In some contexts though, the adverse impacts of climate-related events can be avoided or mitigated, thanks to adaptation measures. Samoa, for example, is prone to tropical cyclones and has a long history of climate-related displacement. With approximately 70 per cent of the country’s population and infrastructure located in low-lying coastal areas and projected sea level rises, vulnerable families in coastal areas have decided to voluntarily relocate to inland sites. Using an inclusive and anticipatory approach, the Samoa Red Cross Society supports vulnerable families who have relocated to these sites. Recognizing the importance of local ownership of humanitarian action, it involves family members in site preparation and promotes sustainable local adaptation, by providing training in cleaning and maintaining rainwater harvesting systems.

An important but often overlooked component of disaster risk management is legal preparedness. In the aftermath of a disaster, time is critical. Laws can help in addressing the complex issues raised by climate-related displacement. Legal preparedness is particularly important when planned relocation is being contemplated to reduce the risk of further displacement due to climate-related events, or as a durable solution to existing displacement. In Fiji, after Tropical Cyclone Winston devastated the country in 2016, the need to strengthen and update Fiji’s disaster law became clear. The Government of Fiji requested the Fiji Red Cross Society and the IFRC to assist in the review of the existing disaster law. Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office is now working towards an integrated approach that also addresses displacement and planned relocation. Malawi is exposed to multiple climate-related hazards, such as floods, droughts, landslides and extreme heat. At the government’s request, the Malawi Red Cross Society supported the revision of the existing disaster risk management legislation. A bill was drafted, which reflected local issues, risks and needs and promoted the agency of local communities in disaster response to better address their needs in a timely way.

The case studies included in this report make clear that local communities and local organizations must be at the centre of addressing climate-related displacement. Governments and donors need to ensure that funding for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is directed to the countries and the communities with the highest risks and the lowest capacities. Immediate and substantial investments are needed to enable communities to anticipate and adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, and reduce the risks of climate-related displacement.