Environmental Refugees

In the outpouring of materials about national and global environmental crises, the concise booklet reports of the Washington-D.C. group known as Worldwatch stand out. Founded by the agricultural economist, Lester Brown, Worldwatch’s most recent Paper *86 covers the tragedy of “Environmental Refugees: A Yardstick of Habitability.”

What is an environmental refugee? The 10,000 former residents of the town of Chernobyl in the Soviet Union will never return home after that nuclear accident contaminated their homes and lands. Soviet officials are planning to demolish this radioactive ghost town.

Author, Jodi L. Jacobson, finds that “people fleeing from environmental degradation now make up the largest class of refugees in the world.” She estimated the number of such people to be over 10 million worldwide.

The leading cause of such displacement is the degradation of agricultural land by toxic chemicals and the effects of natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, made worse by man-made ravages such as deforestation and erosion. Somewhere around 50 million people, many in Subsaharan Africa, live on lands subject to severe desertification. It is difficult to obtain basic food and fuel needs from such quasi-deserts.

Whole villages and fields are being overtaken by sand and the resultant migrations and starvations reach the television audiences of the world more and more frequently.

Jacobson says that the 1982-84 drought “left 150 million people in 24 African countries on the brink of starvation. By March 1985, an estimated 10 million had abandoned their homes in search of food. In just five countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — more

than 2 million people were displaced. Many waited too long to migrate and died.”

The Bangladesh flood this year left 25 million people homeless and drowned 1200 persons. The flood was made worse because of watershed deforestation in the Himalayan mountains around the Ganges River system.

Bad as these environmental breakdowns are, Worldwatch believes that the potential effects of sea level rise as a result of human-induced changes in the Earth’s climate (called the Greenhouse Effect) would be much worse. “A 10 meter rise in ocean levels worldwide — well within current estimates for the middle of the next century — may result in the creation of 50 million environmental refugees from various countries, more than triple the number in all recognized refugee categories today,” she reports.

Clearly, the nations of the world have to get serious about anticipating and preventing these calamaties. Buckminister Fuller — that renaissance man — used to tell his audiences around the world that reallocating a portion of the monies spent on munitions can roll back these risks and deprivations with surprising dispatch.

It is not that we do not know what to do or that we do not have the resources to do it with: it is that the organizing resolve built around the world as a community, that is inextricably and increasingly bound together in both its perils and promises, has not arrived yet.

The new Bush Administration will have to drop the callous ideological baggage of the Reaganites and start facing the undeniable problems so long ignored with leadership.

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