THE BLOG
23/01/2018 08:16 GMT | Updated 24/01/2018 21:06 GMT

What Will Happen When The Seas Rise And The Rivers Dry Up?

With an estimated one person displaced every second due to instability caused by climate change, can the world handle mass migration?

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HuffPost UK

If someone mentions Bali, you think of paradise, right? Well, it is. Beautiful beaches, luxury villas, scenic countryside. But it’s also home to 4.2 million people, more than twice the amount of people living in Paris. Bali is an island, one of over 13,000 islands that make up Indonesia, the fourth most populated country in the world and one that will arguably feel the most profound effects of rising sea levels due to climate change.

When I was in Bali in late 2017, I was admittedly shocked to see that despite the posh resort accommodations for tourists, the island didn’t have great infrastructure. Piles of rubbish in the streets were often burning, narrow roadways made travel long and slow-going, and locals’ homes were modest despite the economic boom from tourism. It made me question how the island, how the country of Indonesia, would cope with natural disaster or rising sea levels. How is the whole world going to cope?

In Hawaii for example, nearly 20,000 people could be forced to leave their homes due to expected sea level rise. The Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission reported that by 2100 the ocean could rise by three feet (nearly one metre) in some locations, swallowing over 104 square kilometres of coastline and causing over $19 billion in economic losses. Hawaii is proposing sustainable land use to mitigate the impending changes, as well as working with indigenous people to record and preserve at-risk cultural practices.

Tokyo, on the other hand, is already well underway in its mitigation and adaptation efforts. With a population of 38 million in the greater metropolitan area, nearly one third of the entire country’s population lives in what would be the affected coastal plane. So the city has invested in a $2 billion underground anti-flood system. Since its completion in 2006, it has been successful, but with the increasing number of intensifying storms, some are questioning the system’s reliability. The Japan Meteorological Agency estimates that the frequency of rainfall over three inches per hour has increased by 70% over the last three decades. As an island country of 126.5 million people, most of whom live along or near the coasts, increasing sea levels and heavy flooding has the potential to displace over half of the entire population.

This change in precipitation averages are not confined to coastal regions, however. While some regions are seeing increased rainfall, others are experiencing prolonged drought and hotter temperatures. A Columbia University study estimated that the number of climate refugees to Europe could triple by 2100. The study found that migrants were more likely to come from agricultural regions where average temperatures deviated from 20° Celsius (68° Fahrenheit), the temperature at which crops are most likely to succeed.

Not surprisingly, this trend of inconsistent crop yield has created poverty and conflict, driving migrants to seek refuge. For example, in 2006 a three-year drought began in Syria. People started to move from the countryside to Damascus, seeking help from the government. The population in Syria’s capital among other cities grew exponentially, creating a lack of social stability and an unreal demand on resources. While it wasn’t the sole cause of Syria’s conflict, climate change was a stimulus and accelerant to instability. Today, of the 13.5 million Syrians identified by the United Nations as requiring humanitarian assistance, five million are refugees outside of Syria.

With growing numbers of climate refugees, there is sure to be increased pressure on host countries’ resources: food, water, shelter, even jobs. According to the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, “A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”

During the 2017 climate talks in Bonn, Germany, people in Morocco were calling for such social responses on behalf of their land and resources. A mining pipeline has depleted water reserves and created contamination suspected in causing cancer and miscarriages among locals. The sentiment among protestors was that humans are polluting the earth and no one was being held accountable. In this region, increased drought compounded by resource depletion could be catastrophic.

Meanwhile, back in Bali, I asked a local man if he knew about climate change. “The seasons are changing,” he said. The dry season gets rain, the rainy season is dry, he told me. It’s not affecting him personally, but it’s affecting the agriculture industry, which is important in Bali. Then, without prompting, he told me that he thinks the earth is angry, that humans have lost touch with the earth. Perhaps he was referring to Mount Agung’s impending eruption*. “I couldn’t agree more,” I told him. 

*After months of increased seismic tremors, Mount Agung erupted in November 2017, the first time in over 50 years.

Maggie can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

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