It’s often more rational for people in disaster-prone areas not to move

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bayhead, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bay Head, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Prof. Harvey Moltoch has a good piece titled “Why Residents of Disaster-Prone Areas Don’t Move.” In it, he discusses some of the economic and emotional reasons why people choose to stay in vulnerable areas, even after suffering the devastating effects of disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

Consider, for example, that people are consumers of space in ways that go beyond having houses, apartments, back-yard gardens, and a place for the RV. They have friends, family and obligations nearby. Location, especially residential location, is the node around which people manage life with routines, like having specific shopping habits close to home. Even when they can be financially “made whole” in an offer to retreat, residents may not want the deal. Hence there are “hold-outs” who resist even robust financial inducements. Private developers trying to assemble large parcels know this all too well: people often want to remain for reasons that money can’t overcome.

Given the recent string of disasters that have occurred in the last few weeks – including earthquakes in Pakistan and the Philippines and massive tropical storms in China, India, and Japan – it is logical that people would want to understand the motives of those who choose to remain in harm’s way, despite the inherent risks; this is particularly true, given that each of these areas has been hit by similar destructive disasters in the past.

While Prof. Moltoch’s post provides valuable insight into this issue, it ignores a lot of other key factors that play into the decision. Moreover, it is largely applicable only to the developed world. What may seem economically rational to a person living in the Korail slum of Dhaka does not necessarily comport to Western standards, and vice versa.

In many areas, government regulations and economic structures may create incentives for individuals and businesses to build in these high risk areas. Both the presence of certain initiatives – like the heavily indebted federal flood insurance program – and the absence of others – such as a requirement to incorporate climate change projections into infrastructure planning – can incentivize people to build in areas where, if externalities were properly accounted for, it would not make economic sense for development.

One can understand the reticence of taxpayers to effectively subsidize such unsustainable development projects. Accordingly, it’s not surprising to see people make comments like “we ALL pay for their stupidity to remain in place,” which one person said in response to Prof. Moltoch’s piece. Yet, this mindset ignores the fact that, for many people (particularly in the developing world), staying in disaster-prone areas is actually the rational decision.

Given the threats posed by climate change, particularly that of sea level rise for low-lying areas, it’s common to hear about the need to resettle large populations of people from, say, Kiribati or Bangladesh. Yet, as we frequently see with resettlement programs related to large-scale development projects, people often find themselves worse off than before. The Hirakud dam, India’s first mega-dam, was completed more than 60 years ago; despite this fact, at least 10,000 people affected by the project still have not been rehabilitated fully.

While moving people from disaster-prone areas may minimize their physical vulnerability, it frequently maximizes their social vulnerability and sense of dislocation (PDF). Following major droughts in the 1980s, for instance, the Ethiopian government launched a large-scale, forced resettlement program of famine-affected households. The effort proved to be a catastrophe, and it soon turned into a state-sponsored disaster of its own.

Two vital forms of capital upon which people can draw to enhance their resilience to disasters are a familiarity with the climate/environment and social networks. Forced relocation can upset each of these in significant ways. Following massive flooding on the Zambeze and Limpopo Rivers in 2001 and 2007, the Mozambican government resettled a large number of people (PDF) from the affected flood plains. Unfortunately, these flood-safe regions suffer from recurrent drought; accordingly, many of the people who were resettled actually returned to the flood-prone areas after the disaster ended.

Moreover, forced relocation frequently breaks social bonds and interferes with various forms of social capital, leaving individuals highly vulnerable and prone to exploitation. After Hurricane Katrina, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher (PDF) than the rate before the storm. There is also ample evidence that Cambodian and Vietnamese families forced to migrate from their homes have sold their daughters into the sex trade (PDF) in order to generate income.

Lastly, particularly in urban areas, it is essential for poor households to have ready access to economic opportunities. Yet, the majority of formal land that the urban poor can afford is located within the peri-urban fringe, far from the urban core. Accordingly, most poor households will opt to live in marginal areas closer to the city center in order to have easier access to the economic resources upon which their livelihoods depend. This create situations in which slums develop in highly vulnerable, disaster-prone areas, such as the Annawadi slum of Mumbai that Katerine Boo chronicles in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living - an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management - are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as "ragpickers" (courtesy of Don't Waste People).

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living – an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management – are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as “ragpickers” (courtesy of Don’t Waste People).

So the next time that you want to criticize someone for living in the low-lying areas of New Orleans or in Orissa state in India, remember two things:


The political drivers of disaster in Burma

Recently, Dr. Ilan Kelman of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo posted my paper on the political dynamics of Cyclone Nargis on his website about disaster diplomacy. I appreciate his willingness to publish my work, and I hope it contributes to the development of disaster diplomacy as a field.

Cyclone Mahasen as it looked, forming in the Bay of Bengal on May 12.

Cyclone Mahasen as it looked, forming in the Bay of Bengal on May 12 (courtesy of CNN iReport).

Coincidentally, the publication of the paper happened just as Cyclone Mahasen was coming ashore from the Bay of Bengal into eastern Bangladesh and western Burma. The center of the storm was located near Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city. Fortunately, the storm weakened from a category 1 cyclone to a tropical storm before it made landfall, reducing its potential impact. That said, even the weakened storm killed at least 75 people in the affected areas, rendered thousands of people homeless, and damaged crops. Its impact was clearly less devastating than other recent cyclones, including Nargis (which killed more than 130,000 Burmese in May 2008) and Sidr (which killed 3,500 people in Bangladesh during 2007, after passing through the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest).

Similar to Nargis, however, Cyclone Mahasen highlighted the ongoing political rifts within Burma. In this patchwork state, composed of more than 100 ethnic groups lumped together by the British, ethnic hostilities and rebellions have been endemic. The Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia lists at least 10 different conflicts between separatist ethnic groups and the Burmese government.

Fortunately, the new government in Burma, which replaced the ruling military junta in March 2011 has worked to settle many of these conflicts, signing a rash of ceasefires and peace agreements. One lingering ethnic challenge which has actually gotten worse since this point, however, involves the minority Rohingya people. The Rohingya, a group comprised of at least one million ethnic Muslims, have experienced severe and ongoing repression within Burma.

The Burmese constitution, which supposedly celebrates the country’s ethnic diversity, does not acknowledge the Rohingya. Despite the fact that at least 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine state, they are officially stateless persons, according to the Burmese government. Around 140,000-200,000 Rohingya live in displacement camps in Rakhine, where they struggle to provide for their basic needs. Additionally, they live under constant fear of violent repression by radical Buddhists in Burma, who view them as invaders and threats to Burmese identity. Many of the same monks who were trumpeted by the West for their role standing up to the junta in the 2007 Saffron Revolution have denounced Rohingya and/or led attacks against them.

A young Rohingya girl and her sibling brace for Cyclone Mahasen in an IDP camp in Rakhine state (courtesy of The Los Angeles Times).

A young Rohingya girl and her sibling brace for Cyclone Mahasen in an IDP camp in Rakhine state (courtesy of the Los Angeles Times).

Given this recent history of ethnic violence, it is unsurprising that many Rohingya resisted efforts to relocate them in the wake of Cyclone Mahasen. Fortunately, the storm appears to have largely spared Rakhine and will leave nothing like the trail of devastation from Nargis. However, the disaster and the political issues surrounding it did generate casualties. At least 100 Rohingya crammed onto small boats in the Bay of Bengal as the storm approached, attempting to find refuge in Bangladesh (which refuses to provide asylum to most Rohingya). Tragically, several of these boats sank off the Rakhine coast in the days before the storm, killing an unknown number of people.

This story demonstrates, once again, the fact that disasters are far from “natural” events. As Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the BBC, “any disaster that results [from Mahasen] will not be natural but man-made.” The vulnerability and physical exposure of Rohingya people to Cyclone Mahasen were the products of the social and political environments. They were intentionally constructed by people in power.

This “myth of naturalness” creates the impression that disasters are all acts of God that are beyond human capacity to manage. This perception is largely false and provides cover for malevolent actors, like the military junta in Burma, to deflect from their own actions. Disaster are political events, and they demand political responses. The Burmese people cannot hope to enjoy peace, stability, and development if its state continues to formally repress and marginalize the Rohingya.

More on the environmental/climate refugee question

My last post on environmental refugees generated a bit of conversation and discussion on Twitter, and it garnered some push back from other activists (as I had hoped). Additionally, I unknowingly posted it at an opportune time for this discussion, as The Guardian has just launched its excellent series on the effects of climate change on communities in Alaska.

The series begins with a discussion of the threat posed to Newtok, as the river that surrounds it on all sides continually erodes the land upon which the town is built at a startling pace. As the author notes:

A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages – or 86% of all native communities – were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, The Guardian opted to title this series “America’s Climate Refugees.” Now, before I get into my argument, let me make a few disclaimers. I find the plight of people living in such Arctic communities to be horrific, and I find the unwillingness or inability of the United States government to address the threats to their livelihoods, culture, and personal security to be shameful. As I noted in my last post, I believe climate change represents the single largest environmental injustice ever enacted upon vulnerable people in history. The fact that the physical and cultural survival of peoples is threatened by anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere is, without question, a fundamental human rights issue. I fully support the effort by the Inuit Circumpolar Council to push for redress (PDF) over climate change to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, despite (and perhaps more so because of) the Commission’s refusal of their petition.

That said, I find it odd that The Guardian would seek to couch a discussion over climate refugees in this particular case study. It’s a tragic story that absolutely demands action. But it’s not a case of climate refugees by a long shot. In order to be a refugee, an individual needs to cross an international border and fear reprisal from his/her host government or another group should s/he return. The Alaskan communities in question have not, to my knowledge, migrated into Canada from fear of the US government or fellow Alaskans. On the contrary, they have received (woefully inadequate) technical and financial support from the US government, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, to relocate their village.

As the article notes, Newtok residents developed a plan to move their village approximately nine miles away to higher ground. This plan lines up closely with evidence from other groups displaced by environmental events and/or disasters. As I discuss in my paper on climate change and national security:

Environmental migration follows a distinct pattern: it is largely internal, temporary, and nearby. Migrants moved an average of two miles in response to flooding in Bangladesh, and the vast majority returned shortly after the disaster had dissipated.

Now, that is not to say that all migrants relocated to nearby communities or returned to their homes. Approximately 10-25% of migrants permanently relocated, most of whom moved into Dhaka. Moreover, research does suggest (PDF) that nearly all types of environmental disasters create international migration flows. But that’s not what is occurring in this Alaska case. The suffering of innocent Alaskan communities at the hands of our fossil fuel-based economic is no less important than that of people living on small island states in the Pacific Ocean. But that does not mean that they are “climate refugees.”

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

Another one of the threads running through the push back I got on Twitter dealt with the fact that people displaced by environmental and climatic changes defy the current definition of refugees, IDPs, etc. I would generally agree with that argument, and I think most international migration scholars (of which I am not one) think that the current paradigm needs to change to better reflect current realities.

But we also need to consider the moral issues involved in creating a special protected class in international law for people displaced by climate change. The single largest source of displacement globally is violence/conflict. The IFRC estimates that 10.4 million refugees and 26.4 million IDPs fled violence/conflict in 2011, adding to the 43 million total who have left their homes from these threats over the years. If we provide a special, internationally recognized status for people forcibly displaced by climate change, what does that mean for the millions already displaced by violent conflict? Is an IDP in Sudan, who lives under the constant threat of violence, somehow less worthy of protection and support than someone displaced by groundwater salination in the Maldives?

And what of the 43 million people who have been forcibly displaced and relocated by large-scale development projects, including big dams and mines, worldwide? The vast majority of these people have not received adequate relocation and livelihoods support, and they are highly vulnerable to the looming impacts of climate change. Should they only be eligible for special protection after they have been displaced again by sea level rise?

The plight of marginalized communities facing the effects of conflict, disasters, and climate change is what keeps me up at night. It’s what I devoted my entire graduate school education and my Master’s thesis to. Marginalized people displaced by climate change, whether in the developing or developed world, are absolutely entitled to financial and, I would argue, legal retribution. But we need to be mindful about the potential consequences of our proposals to address these issues. It has taken more than 60 years to get our addled, ineffective international refugee system to where it is today. We need to be very careful about throwing out the baby with the rising bathwater.