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Somalia’s ‘Climate Refugees’ Can’t Wait for Global Action Much Longer

As world leaders meet for the G20 meeting in Hamburg, researchers at Samuel Hall make the case for urgent legal reform and investment to protect climate refugees and help them be more resilient in the face of disaster.

Written by Ashley Hamer, Samuel Hall Research Team Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Eight-year-old Hodo takes care of the family's surviving goats as they try to survive of the meager resources and disappearing water.Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK

HABAS WEYN, Somaliland – At the age of seven, Hodo inherited a duty that is sacred to her community – tending her family’s goats.

A year later, she still goes out everyday in Habas Weyn, western Somaliland to look after the few goats that have survived the severe drought gripping her community since last year. Her duties have transformed from a way of life to a matter of survival.

While Hodo has never been in a classroom, she would like to attend school. That is even less of an option now, as her family has been made destitute and is frequently on the move due to the devastating drought in Somalia.

Due to dwindling resources, children like Hodo – the most vulnerable among the displaced – take on onerous responsibilities to ensure the survival of their families, their livestock and themselves.

The drought is affecting people across the region, like Ahmed, a pastoralist in neighboring Puntland. They know little about each other’s plight – or about better coping mechanisms – due to scarce means of sharing information.

Dudho village is the only running water source within a 30-mile (50km) radius of the affected region. Pastoralists from across Puntland and neighbouring Somaliland have traveled to this area in search of water and pasture for their dwindling livestock herds. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

Climate change not only drives people from their homes, but also stokes other drivers of displacement. Social and political strife can be exacerbated by environmental destruction, as it changes the trajectories of entire communities.

Slow-onset climate disasters like long-term drought make reintegrating people who have been displaced even more challenging. Yet responses to them are often neglected until they turn into vicious disasters that destroy the local ecosystem – such as the last famine in Somalia in 2011.

Climate-related events are a rising cause of migration globally, with projections of up to 150 million “climate refugees” by 2050. Disasters such as these displace three times the number of people inside their countries than conflict, according to a latest Global Report on Internal Displacement. We ignore these trends at our peril.

How climate change drives displacement

Ceel Baxay, 18 miles (30km) outside of Hargeisa, is the main water point in the area. Families of pastoralists are traveling hundreds of kilometers from as far as neighboring Ethiopia to access water for themselves and their livestock. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

Climate change has a particularly potent impact on rural subsistence communities.

The degeneration of Lake Chad’s ecosystem, which led to forced migration and heightened social tensions, is one recent example of the nexus between climate change, displacement and conflict. But the repeated displacement of populations around Lake Chad was largely ignored until the Boko Haram insurgency took over media coverage.

People in Nigeria, a resource-rich and relatively wealthy country, are now experiencing extreme hunger due to a combination of conflict, loss of land and livelihoods. Over 9 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance, 2.2 million are displaced and 5 million are starving in the Lake Chad region spanning Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Children are suffering from starvation and malnourishment in the Horn of Africa. Yet they take on onerous responsibilities to ensure the survival of their families and herds. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

In Syria, while it is too simplistic to make a direct causal link between climate change and conflict, many experts say that internal migration within the country due to climate change-induced drought and desertification led to rapid urbanization. This brewed social, economic and political friction that gradually precipitated the ongoing war. Reversing the chain of events that led to conflict and ensuring that civilians can one day return will require fostering environmentally resilient communities.

In a post-conflict Syria, a more sustainable distribution of returning refugees and displaced people between urban and rural areas will be needed to reduce environmental strain and to form a more stable economy. The same applies to other countries at conflict in the region, such as Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

Yet in spite of these crises, political inertia drives the policies of the world’s most powerful nations. With the recent G7 talks and the G20 meeting this week, there is an opportunity for concrete action on climate change-related displacement and to develop an international standard of protection.

Recognizing ‘Climate Refugees’

When climate refugees cross national borders, they are left in the lurch by international refugee law – the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention does not include protections for climate displacement.

In the absence of sufficient protection and resilience mechanisms, women take on the responsibilities of ensuring the survival of the youngest in the families during drought conditions, while the men go farther and for longer in search of dwindling resources. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

The Paris climate accord does request a task force to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” But it fails to remedy the lack of legal status or clear directives on protection for people displaced by climatic events.

The effects of climate change are something that will impact us all in the long term. Yet the leaders debating these issues aren’t held accountable – financially or otherwise – for the environmental damage their countries have caused.

Women provide water to their camels at Ceel Baxay, the main water-point in the area. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord will severely compromise the fight to stem rising global temperatures, a main source of drastic climate impact and ensuing global displacement. The U.S., which has the world’s largest per person and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, and other developed countries should form global contingency plans to bolster local support systems for climate refugees.

The process must start with an internationally ratified consensus recognizing “climate refugees” and expanding conventions to better support internally displaced people (IDPs). Such a formal recognition should be supported by protection – emergency aid as well as building support bases for the nomadic communities – at regional, domestic and local levels.

Strengthening the resilience of pastoralist communities that have weathered harsh conditions throughout history will require close engagement with the local communities. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

Resilience in the Face of Disaster

Regardless of the pace of political action, the people most affected by climate change must be strengthened to cope with its impact.

Many of these communities are inherently resilient, with well-established coping mechanisms. Somali pastoralists, for instance, have long had techniques to adapt to the harsh environment in which they raise their herds. Nomadism allows livestock herders the flexibility to move to new water sources, choose a variety of animal species and split their herds based on needs. The communities maintain strong social bonds that help them survive difficult seasons.

But the intensity and frequency of climatic shocks coupled with the restructuring of land tenure – such as less accessible pasture and overgrazing – are eroding these traditional coping strategies.

Investing in the development of the local communities to give them built-in resilience to natural disasters will require local approaches that are supported by international legal reform. (Ashley Hamer, Action Aid UK)

How can such communities be better supported? There are no simple answers. The potential impact of drought and floods on different communities in the region varies by livelihoods, environment and their existing adaptation mechanisms. We must listen to the different communities and understand what they want and need.

Aid groups need to stop repeating top-down approaches based on preconceived expectations about resilience-building. Supporting new forms of resilience will require long-term dedication and investment from humanitarian organizations, the U.N., governments and affected communities. Resilience cannot be built overnight.

In the meantime, the drought in Somalia is gradually intensifying. Somalis are watching their indigenous ways of living disappear due to the impacts of climate change. They do not have the luxury of waiting.

Read the first part of this commentary on climate-induced displacement by Samuel Hall, with reporting from Ashley Hamer in Puntland: Amid Drought, Somali Pastoralists Watch Their ‘Sources of Life’ Perish

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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