Environment-Related Displacement: Climate Change and Environmental Manipulation

Climate change is a growing concern in the international community for good reason. Yet, while several individual states within the international community have made pro-environmental changes, there several serious issues related to climate change remain unaddressed. One such problem concerns international migration resulting directly or indirectly from climate change, which currently plagues certain Southeast Asian countries like Bangladesh. Due to war’s displacement of so many people, environmental migrants trying to escape unlivable conditions are not prioritized and often refused. Of course, climate change is not the only factor behind environment-related displacement; environmental degradation caused by some Asian development projects transcend international borders and force people out of their homes.

Situation in Bangladesh

The climate change situation in Bangladesh remains dire, even as the government’s corrective efforts have been noteworthy. In terms of renewable energy, Bangladesh is a leading world example of steady success, especially in sustainable solar energy development. An initiative to install solar home systems in rural Bangladesh, currently being carried out by the state-run International Development Company Limited (IDCOL) along with 47 partner organizations like the World Bank, has provided 9% of the population with solar-produced electricity, and there are plans to expand “mini solar grids” to provide for irrigation pumps. This clean-energy system is being implemented as the first source of reliable electricity for many in Bangladesh. Despite the prevalence of the clean-energy debate and the progress being made in the country, Bangladeshi citizens are increasingly being displaced due to water shortage issues. The main issue driving climate change migration in Bangladesh is the destruction of the delta region connected to the Bay of Bengal: massive amounts of flooding has led to the salinization and degradation of fertile land from brackish or salty river water, and the massive storms that occur periodically threaten the habitability of the area. Drought, especially in the northwest region of Bangladesh, largely contributes to the displacement of people and often leads to permanent internal or international migration.

Intersections between climate change and environmental manipulation

In Bangladesh alone, there have been serious challenges to the population’s ability to survive and work, especially in agricultural fields. Regions in the center and south are consistently flooded while regions in the northwest may endure months of drought at a time. This has serious implications for Bangladeshi food production capabilities, aside from the documented internal displacement. Urbanization can only account for some of the massive population increases around cities, and in the capital of Dhaka researchers estimate that over 1/5th of the slum population is made up of migrants from the Bengal Bay area in response to flooding.

Broader implications for Bangladesh and its neighbors concern the massive and unavoidable migration that will continue to increase due to environmental conditions. Already, many Bangladeshi have fled to the Assam region of India, putting a strain on both Indian-Bangladeshi relations and the land in the region. Pakistan deals with serious issues concerning migration as a result of climate change, and the extremist influence in the region is worrying many that the destabilizing effect of climate change could not only displace more people, but also cause them to turn to extremist groups promising better living standards. In terms of diplomatic relations, environmental manipulation (such as the damming and political control of rivers by both China and India) causes a great deal of diplomatic tension. The ability to manipulate water flows upstream of India is, some suggest, a legitimate security threat to India; others are, alternatively, unconvinced of the threat to India’s security and insist the two Asian powers would never escalate the situation to actual conflict. Bangladesh has a long historyof water-related bilateral negotiations with India, but has little bargaining power when faced with the long-term effects of infrastructure inside their neighbor’s borders. Meanwhile the water crisis in Bangladesh’s northwest regions pushes more agricultural workers to the city or out of the country entirely.

Response of the international community

What, then, could the international community do to counter the negative effects of both climate change and environmental manipulation on vulnerable populations in Bangladesh and other areas? Large-scale environmental change was, of course, discussed on the international level in Paris last year, but while countries made an agreement to combat environmental change, no binding treaties were proposed or signed. Instead, the environment remains a domestic policy issue that can only be affected on a broad scale by pressure from one state or another. Unfortunately, little has been discussed with regard to the implications of migration as a result of worsening environmental conditions. UN Special Envoy for Climate Change Mary Robinson believes there should be more policies and programs designed to support those specifically migrating due to environmental degradation. She also believes, crucially, that these individuals should be treated as refugees, and that the international community is currently not honoring the UN Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Essentially, the international community should eliminate the “line drawn between refugees fleeing political oppression and migrants seeking better opportunities” due to environmental factors.

The implications of amending the UN Convention on Refugees to include those displaced due to environmental factors are serious. Under the Convention, states are held responsible for both the acceptance and the well-being of individuals; and yet, few states readily or easily accept the economic and security risks of doing so, or severely limit the number of accepted refugees. Additionally, accepting a broader definition for refugee status would greatly increase the already sizeable refugee population, and the current pressure on states especially in the European Union and the US make the topic highly politically controversial. Would this broadening of status affect all those impacted by environmental stress, or just climate change-related environmental conditions? Do we exclude consideration for people living in regions like southern Bangladesh, which naturally experiences cyclone and flood damage, even when global warming has increased the severity of these cycles? It is relatively unlikely that the broadening of the term refugee under UN standards would ever occur, and the failure of the current UN Convention to cover these individuals perhaps indicates the need for a new way to categorize and deal with this kind of necessary migration.

The response of issues like upriver damming and other environmental changes that affect more than one state are delicate issues the international community is not yet effective at dealing with. For starters, the means to resolve disputes that arise from building dams that affect countries downriver have not been effectively institutionalized in Bangladesh’s case, though the government has tried to address the issue in the past. In an international community that is unable to come to a binding agreement on climate change even in high-profile situations, it is extremely unlikely that a greater focus will fall on environmental manipulation which can be labeled as isolated, regional, or simply bilateral in nature. It is more likely that until the ramifications of the population displaced by environmental concerns gains more attention than conflict refugees, the international community will focus on positive, state-based environmental policy, rather than negotiating or considering transnational environmental concerns.

Erin Bovee is a student in SIS class of 2017. She can be contacted at eb4075a@student.american.edu.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.

About Erin Bovee

Contributing editor for the Asia column / Senior studying peace, international organizations, and human rights in the School of International Service / Email me at erin.bovee@student.american.edu / Twitter @ErinBovee