Water – Week 6: Climate change refugees

Many fear that climate change may lead to increased levels of conflict among states, communities and people. For example, increasing water scarcity may lead to clashes between groups with conflicting water needs such as pastoralists and farmers.

Possible mass displacement is also looming in other parts of the world, like Bangladesh, where large scale population moves are foreseeable. Some small island states are already preparing for the possible disappearance of their territories.

It is crucial to ensure that the needs of climate victims, before, during, and after displacement, are at the heart of policies. Yet governments now tend to frame climate displacement as a defence and national security concern.

Noah: an uprooted pilgrim

Reflection by Dr Guillermo Kerber, World Council of Churches

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.

Gen 6.11, NRSV

A flooded village in Khulna district on the south-eastern coast of Bangladesh.

“Suddenly water came into the village of these people and forced them to leave.” Photo: Prodipan

Perhaps one of the most well known stories in the Bible is that of Noah. What do we remember from the story of Noah? I have some images that come immediately to my mind: the whole earth covered by the waters; the ark where a pair of every kind of animal is brought , together with Noah’s family; the dove sent from the ark and coming back with a branch of olive tree, …

What are the images that come to your mind? While reading Alastair McIntosh’s book Hell and High Water, I was astonished to read how he relates the story of Noah with violence[1]. This would not have been my own highlight of the story. But it is true, chapter 6 of the book of Genesis, where the Noah story begins, refers, in several occasions to the corruption of the earth and violence of human beings. Before the verse that I have chosen as opening for this meditation we read: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen 6.5 NIV).

We know what happened later: God calls Noah to build the ark, to bring into it his family and a pair of all living creatures. And then the floodwaters came to earth. When the waters receded, those in the ark were the only ones who have survived. A new covenant is established between God and creation with the solemn promise “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9.8). And a rainbow is the sign of the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures (Gen 9.16).

Although today we don’t see a single flood covering the whole earth, the increase of frequency and intensity of rains, hurricanes and cyclones have produced devastating floods across the earth. Millions of people have been displaced in Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Brazil, Australia and Europe. The increase of flooding is one of the consequences of human induced climate change. Today, it is not God, who provokes the flood, as in the Noah story, but rather human beings are provoking the destructive flooding with their violent behaviour towards the earth and its creatures.

As in Noah’s story, the whole creation is being affected. Biodiversity is quickly decreasing as a result of the current development pattern. Monocultures, deforestation, increase of ocean temperatures and the extension of megacities are dramatically affecting ecosystems and provoking the destruction of species.

Water related phenomena are some of the most catastrophic consequences of human-induced climate change. Together with the millions of people displaced because of floods, tens of thousands are being displaced in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions because of the change in rainfall patterns which  alters the cycle of planting and harvesting, preventing people from having access to food. At the same time, global warming has provoked the rise of sea water making some populations need to resettle. This has been the case of the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands who had to be moved to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Other low lying islands states are currently holding crucial negotiations to resettle their populations, such as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean or Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific. The salinization of fresh water and the bleaching of corals have already affected fauna and flora in these fragile ecosystems.

The resettlement of entire populations, the new reality of climate refugees or climate displaced peoples are a new face of uprooted peoples today. Together with refugees, forced migrants and internally displaced people, climate related uprooted people are increasing today in various regions of the world.

Noah himself became a displaced person. He is forced to leave his home, his land and has to travel to an unknown destination. Yet at the same time, he is a pilgrim, because through his journey of his faith and hope, he is able to begin anew.

Climate related displacement because of floods or rise of sea level does not occur without conflict. It is not easy for an uprooted community to adapt to a new situation, many times with a different culture, language, environment. It is not easy either for a community, for a region or a country to have to deal with thousands of newcomers who are fleeing from disasters. Many countries are closing more and more their borders to poor migrants, while prejudices, xenophobia and racism have seen new developments because of these phenomena. The stranger is rejected everywhere.

The story of Noah is a call to conversion. If we look around we will easily find examples of the violent behaviour of human beings against our neighbours and against the earth. Overconsumption and extreme poverty are both a sign of injustice and structural sin in our societies. Air and water pollution, the generation of waste in mega-cities, wasteland because of monocultures or extractive industries and deforestation are just some examples of the violence and corruption of the earth we live within with irreparable consequences in ecosystems.

As the IEPC reminds us, there is no Peace in the earth without peace with the earth. The call for just peace is also a call to repentance, to convert our minds (metanoia) and behaviours, from the destruction of creation to caring for creation and welcoming the stranger in our midst. In other words, to become pilgrims with Noah, his family, and all the animals in the ark.

Dr Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, is responsible for climate justice and care for creation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.

[1] Cf. McINTOSH, Alastair, Hell and High Water. Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2008, p. 111.

Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.

Background and resources

Global warming and climate refugees*

Climate change is generating dramatic effects in some countries and regions of the world, particularly in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific and South East Asia. The increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones, drought and flood periods are already affecting these regions. 1

Among the many concerns raised by the phenomenon of climate change, the likelihood of mass population displacement is among the most pressing and worrisome. For small island states such as Tuvalu, Kiribati or the Maldives, the reality of land loss is already apparent. As to the broader phenomenon of climate-related migration, even conservative figures are daunting.

Climate refugees: a neglected problem

Discussion of this crucial issue at international level is only starting, and there is as yet no clear international policy direction for addressing a problem of potentially immense magnitude. There is still discussion between the bodies that might naturally be expected to think ahead on this issue, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These agencies have denied the legitimacy of the term “climate refugees” but have not put forward a credible alternative.

1 This brief is based on the proceedings of a conference on “Protection and Reparation for Climate Refugees” that took place 4 – 5 May 2010 in Switzerland. It was organized by Bread for the World, the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches. A more comprehensive summary of discussions, the compendium of presentations held at the conference, is available, together with other materials, online at the WCC Climate Change webpage: www.oikoumene.org/climatechange

Several reasons account for the relative lack of political decisions on this crucial topic. First, no solid estimates of the numbers of likely migrants or refugees exist, and little certainty about who will be affected or where they are likely to go. Available estimates range from hundreds of millions (according to the Stern Review) to a billion (Christian Aid). All such estimates involve judgements about relevant timescales and climate scenarios, as well as predictions of the likelihood of credible mitigation and adaptation action.

A second reason for the tardy appreciation of this problem: mass migration, were it to happen, will signal the effective failure of policies for dealing with climate change—mitigation efforts will have failed, and adaptive funding or activities will have failed to materialize, leaving migration as the adaptation policy of last resort. To begin to take mass migration seriously, for these reasons, may appear pessimistic or defeatist—but more to the point, such a discussion risks taking place in a relative vacuum. What is, in fact, the likely scenario for population displacement? The answer at present is: we barely know.

For similar reasons, third, climate refugees are likely to prove extremely contentious in political negotiation. It may seem wiser to states not to engage with the issue as long as they are still grappling with so many other difficult sticking points, with these others at least known and, to a degree, quantifiable.

World Council of Churches, March 2011LESSONS LEARNED FROM CASE STUDIES


Large-scale displacement

The people of Bangladesh are among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, with predictions over the next century reaching truly catastrophic proportions. According to the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Bangladesh is expected to lose about 8 percent of its rice and 32 percent of its wheat productivity by 2050. A one-metre rise in sea-level will put 20 percent of Bangladesh’s landmass under water and inundate the whole of the Sundarbans national park, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Up to 20 million people are at risk.

It has been suggested that some system of redress or compensation for those suffering losses due to climate change must be put in place. Bangladesh will need to take account of climate refugees in its National Adaptation Plans as and Climate Change Strategy. It must also begin to seek international help in various ways, such as readying other countries to accept skilled-and semi-skilled migrant workers at a minimum, as well as to accept climate refugees. Significant attention must be paid to infrastructural development and otherwise integrating relocation into development policy.

A flooded village in Khulna district on the south- eastern coast of Bangladesh. “Suddenly water came into the village of these people and forced them to leave.” Photo: Prodipan

We need to think ahead now

It is vital to begin to think through the policy implications of climate displacement and climate refugees. As mentioned, some small island states are already preparing for the likelihood of the disappearance of their territories and are negotiating deals with other countries to take on their populations. Those conversations are necessarily precarious; and the international community as a whole should be paying attention, as precedents set today are likely to be of great importance in future.

The islands in question are generally inhabited by relatively small populations. But in some parts of the world, like in Bangladesh, large-scale population moves are foreseeable. What will happen? Again, the answer, at present, is: we barely know.

Climate-induced migration, both within countries and across borders, is likely to constitute an unprecedented crisis in human history to which current approaches of dealing with forced displacement will not be able to offer answers. It is crucial to ensure that the needs of climate victims, before, during, and after displacement are at the heart of adaptation policies.

In this context, the phenomenon of the “securitization” of the climate displacement issue is potentially problematic. Increasingly governments frame climate displacement as a defense and national security concern. When governments of wealthy countries approach climate change displacement from a national security angle, their interest in finding solutions for the affected may drop—especially if it appears they will not be directly affected. In fact, climate migration is likely to be worst between relatively poorer countries and “climate refugees” are overwhelmingly likely to be poor and lack mobility over great distances. If national

World Council of Churches, March 2011



The challenge of resettlement

In 2000, Mozambique was hit by heavy floods, submerging large parts of the country. The government constructed new, modern housing for flood victims from low-lying regions, who themselves participated in the construction. Over time, however, the new housing was eventually abandoned.

The project’s relative lack of success was explained as being due to the insufficient consultation with the beneficiaries, disregard for people’s livelihoods in the choice of the location, and the lack of basic infrastructure, among other factors. The beneficiaries were afraid of losing their access to the fertile land in the low-lying areas, since they were to be resettled in a less fertile area suffering from environmental degradation.

The case study shows the relevance of looking for solutions involving the communities and not top-down approaches, which in the medium term don’t work. Technical skills need to match a process in which communities own the decisions made.

Floods in Mozambique in 2008. Photo: Peter Casier, UN World Food Programme

security is the superior concern to the wealthier states, the poor and vulnerable displaced may be forgotten.

Strategies for further action

People affected by climate disasters are themselves creative at finding ways to adapt. Further work is needed to define how this potential can be explored, organized and channelled.

 Advocate for turning people into subjects and not objects of policies. Ownership of and participation in the process are crucial for achieving any success. Victims need to be turned into agents of the process.

 Connect national authorities and decision makers to the on-the-ground experience and give them a clearer picture of who suffers and how it can be prevented or remedied. Spearhead bottom-up action by bringing in actors “from the field” and giving a high profile to traditional local knowledge and ways of combining traditional and modern technologies in national strategies.

More possible actions at the local, national and international level are presented in the summary report “Protection and Reparation for Climate Refugees”.

The role of churches

Climate change challenges the churches in their calling to be stewards of creation (Genesis 2:15) and to seek justice for the vulnerable (Isaiah 1:17). What is happening relates to justice as “those who are and will increasingly be affected are the impoverished and vulnerable communities of the global South who do not have the means to adapt to the change” (Minute on Global Warming and Climate Change, WCC, Central Committee, Geneva, February 2008).

An important role for the churches must be to raise the urgency of victims’ rights on each relevant occasion. They should

World Council of Churches, March 2011


Small island states:

Losing home

A number of small island states in the Pacific are at serious risk of submersion due to climate change sea level rise. As their islands disappear, the people who live there may need new homes in future. People from low-lying villages in Vanuatu, an island state in the South Pacific Ocean, have already been evacuated as a precaution. In Papua New Guinea, people from the Carteret Islands have been resettled already in Bougainville.

A series of difficult questions arises if populations are to leave behind the territories upon which they have survived for countless generations. This is especially so for peoples for whom the link to the land is strong or constitutive, as is the case in many of the South Pacific islands. How are cultures and identities to be maintained if people are required to leave behind their homes?

Current negotiations on resettlement between individual states and Australia and New Zealand are being held. But the Pacific Islands Forum (the intergovernmental regional organization with about 15 member states) advocates for negotiations to take place collectively at the regional level to compensate for the differences in the negotiation power and capacities of the involved states.

Mangroves and signs of erosion on the coastline of Viwa Island in the South Pacific. Photo: WCC

be ready to rock the boat if and where complacency about the suffering of climate change victims becomes dominant, as is frequently the case.

Churches should also enhance the participation of local people(s) in various procedures to defend their rights at the local, national and international levels. In addition, the churches can develop their role as a platform of exchange and exposure, reaching out, for example, to members of parliament or parliamentary committees and members of local communities or seeking cooperation among existing civil society organisations dealing with climate change. In addition, the churches are well positioned to enhance social mobilisation, resistance and empowerment among the suffering people and their supporters.

It is important to remember that climate change is not just about law and legal instruments; it is also about making governments change their policies and concepts on development. Climate change presents challenges at many levels, but it is above all a challenge to the imagination. In order to determine how to avoid immense population displacement, we need first to imagine the kind of world that will permit mass forced migration—and we must then imagine another kind of world.

Further information

More on climate refugees and strategies for action in: Protection and Reparations for “Climate Refugees”: Imperatives and Options.

WCC Climate Change webpage:


Ecumenical Water Network:

Biblical reflection: Noah, an uprooted pilgrim

World Council of Churches, March 2011


The WCC and climate change

On the climate change website of the World Council of Churches you will find prayers and liturgical resources, ideas for activities and advocacy, background on WCC climate change statements, videos, and other resources. Go to:


Time for Climate Justice:

Time for Climate Justice is an ecumenical campaign initiated by APRODEV, an association of 17 major development and humanitarian aid organisations in Europe which work closely with the World Council of Churches towards a fair and effective international climate change agreement. The website http://climatejusticeonline.orgoffers background and campaigning resources including:

The Science of Climate Change: http://www.climatejusticeonline.org/wp-content/uploads/Science-paper.pdf

Campaign toolkit: http://www.climatejusticeonline.org/take-action/campaign-toolkit/

General Sources: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/activities/ewn-home/resources-and-links/seven-weeks-for-water/week-6.html


One thought on “Water – Week 6: Climate change refugees

  1. Anne

    Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmentally displaced people.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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