Floods in Pakistan: A Case for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees?

The recent floods in Pakistan, described by one journalist as “beyond emotional comprehension” in the devastation wrought, have raised questions in this blog as elsewhere, as to the adequacy of the government’s response and the need for greater international coordination to deal with displaced persons. The floods are said to be an example of interactive disasters, whereby instead of being a single natural disaster beyond the control of states or organisations, they are instead an example of a “cascading series of political and economic catastrophes” requiring global strategic answers. The year 2010 has seen the greatest challenge to the climate change thesis in the form of the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, with the apparent attempt to cover up data from Chinese weather stations snowballing into a climate science crisis. However the gravity of the effects of climate change are starting to mitigate the damage from those disastrous email correspondences, with a renewed acceptance that climate change is real and is beginning to display the horrific consequences foretold by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), despite some poor practice.

For example, a recent report from the University College of London Hazard Research Centre, entitled ‘The Waters of the Third Pole’, focuses on the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, called the third pole as it contains the largest body of frozen water outside the polar regions. The report warns that cataclysmic floods are likely to increase throughout much of the HKH region, which, as the source of ten major Asian river systems, needs to be viewed as an interrelated water system on which one in five of the world’s population depends. If the ice in the world’s largest mountain ranges begins to melt due to the predicted effects of climate change, it will bring water rushing down on the world’s most densely populated regions. Is this already happening? The question is what caused Pakistan’s cataclysmic floods. Is it climate change? Or monsoon patterns? Or other human factors, such as the ‘timber mafia’, which engages in illegal logging in the region?

The issue of ‘climate change refugees’ has recently gained much support among environmental and legal scholars and activists, who are lobbying for a lex specialis in the form of a new convention to cover projected numbers of displaced persons due to rising sea levels. The Pakistan floods will renew the urgency around this debate. It might seem logical to support moves towards a convention on climate change refugees, as an obvious means of providing an international legal framework for a very real future threat. But this is open to question; and we have been here before.

In 1985, El-Hinnawi identified a new class of persons known as ‘environmental refugees’. He defined environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption, whether natural or triggered by people.” El-Hinnawi’s study caused widespread interest, with advocates initially arguing for the extension of the definition of a refugee in international law to cover environmental refugees. However closer analysis suggested that this approach was misguided, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees commissioning a 2001 paper by Richard Black which set out why the term is problematic, effectively describing environmental refugees as a ‘myth’. A major problem was the definitional requirement that refugees cross international borders.

Perhaps the strongest indicator that ‘environmental refugees’ has failed as a concept is the swift emergence of a group known as climate change refugees, and the strong support this has quickly received as an independent area of research and lobbying. The focus is now on providing legal protection to predicted large numbers of persons who will be affected by climate change, in particular its three accepted major effects: sea-level rise, extreme weather events and water scarcity or drought. A 2008 working paper called for a separate, independent legal and political regime created under a protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), linking protection of climate change refugees with the overall climate programme. However there were significant shortcomings to this idea. The UNFCCC’s mandate is limited, as it is focused on preventive measures rather than remedies. The only reference to a remedial measure is its Article 4 on adaptation, and nowhere is there any reference to migrants, refugees or displacement. There is also an historical reluctance to incorporate human rights issues into environmental treaties.

As a result, support is gathering for a proposed convention on climate change refugees, including NGOs such as the Environmental Justice Foundation and academic advocates. The proposed convention would link human rights, humanitarian intervention and international environmental law for the first time in one instrument, with a global fund for its realisation.

The fundamental problem is one that relates to the original proposal for protection of environmental refugees; identification and definition. Despite the increased scientific knowledge of the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, there has been no evidence of climate change as a sole cause of migration. This is in evidence in Pakistan, where climate change is a potential but by no means definite cause of the floods. Therefore the proposed convention is acting in an area of speculation, reflected in the differing range of figures of potential climate change refugees, from 50 million to 200 million by 2050.  If floods were found to be caused by man, such as the ‘timber mafia’ in Pakistan, those displaced would not be eligible for the remedies provided. It seems arbitrary and difficult to isolate climate change above other causes.

The debate around a new convention assumes that governments are not acting to the best of their ability to provide relief from disasters. This seems to be in evidence in Pakistan. It also assumes that neighbouring states and the international community should be compelled to provide relief which they otherwise would not do. Again, the inadequacy of the international response has already been raised in this blog. Should efforts be focussed on a new climate change refugee regime? What advocates need to prove is that the flood victims of Pakistan, for example, would benefit from such a treaty. And that states would sign it. A convincing case has yet to be made.

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Floods in Pakistan: A Case for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees?

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