AUC member Fiona Williamson spoke recently at the 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History conference in Tianjin, China on the theme of historic urban flooding. Her paper, titled ‘Cities and Disasters: Floods and Urban Development in Colonial Singapore’, explored urban development and social responses to floods in the city between the late 19th to the early 20th century. It paid close attention to how the British authorities and the city’s inhabitants understood and reacted to serious inundations, and in turn, how these responses shaped the city’s social and physical development. Based on data collected from primary archival sources relating to governance and urban life in the British Straits Settlements, municipal records, and contemporary newspapers, it also argued that the lessons learned (or not) by cities facing disasters in the past can be useful in addressing urban disasters in the modern world.
The paper noted how urban development (especially with the spread of infrastructural projects and industrial growth across the landscape) and the clunky processes of colonial administration hindered, rather than advanced, progress in flood mitigation for much of this time. For instance, although river management was considered important for economic reasons, flood control for its own sake was given lower priority. In all the flood disasters to have affected Singapore during this period, it can clearly be seen that human, rather than natural, exigencies exacerbated their severity. Within a social framework, what we witness over the 19th and 20th centuries was a major shift in how floods were viewed. In the 19th century, floods were disliked but normalized within urban society, and people accepted that there was little to be done. Emphasis was on the individual or the community to tackle the immediate issues surrounding floods, with the government later stepping in to provide financial aid and longer-term solutions. But by the early 20th century, there was an expectation for the government to assume a more proactive stance, to take more responsibility in providing financial and technical preventative solutions. What this shows is less revealing of the nature or trends of floods themselves, but more revealing of a changing culture and society– especially the relationship between government and society and notions of social justice and expectation.
Some of Fiona’s work on these themes will be available to view in the forthcoming publication titled: ‘Crossing Colonial Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in Historic Context’, in M. Miller, M. Douglass, M. Garschagan, eds., Crossing Borders:Governing Environmental Disasters in a Global Urban Age in Asia and the Pacific (Singapore: Springer). She also has a recent article titled: ‘The Great Flood of 1926: Environmental Change and Disaster Governance in British Malaya’, Journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, Environmental Impact of Disasters – special issue, 2:11 (2016).
The Asia Urbanisms Cluster (AUC) recently hosted the final event in a three-year project to investigate the impact of disasters on urban life. The disaster governance theme has been facilitated by an MOE Tier-2 grant on Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia [MOE2014-T2-1-017], awarded in 2014. This 3-year multidisciplinary programme was spearheaded by the AUC, working in concert with ARI’s Science, Technology and Society Cluster. Its aim has been to improve understandings of the changing risks, vulnerabilities, responses, and resilience to compounded environmental disasters in an increasingly interconnected urbanizing Asia. In particular, the grant has been instrumental in facilitating an inter-disciplinary dialogue across the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and related technical disciplines.
The final two-day event on ‘Climate Disaster Governance’ has seen these aims achieved by drawing together one of the widest cross-disciplinary dialogues to be held during the course of this grant. Involving people from climate science, geography, sociology, history, public health, applications, agricultural sectors, and more, this conference explored avenues for collaborative work and dialogue to take place. Such an approach is critical to tackling some of the climate related challenges of the 21st century, which will see all basic facets of human life impacted by nature-induced disasters, perhaps to a greater scale than ever before.
In Anthropocene Asia-Pacific, climate change is driving the nature and scale of environmental disasters (especially floods, droughts, and heatwaves) that combine and interact with processes of planetary urbanization. Livelihoods, food security, urban infrastructure, and health will be more frequently and deeply impacted by climate change, and therefore disaster risk governance will face increasingly tough, interconnected, multi-dimensional challenges. One is the merging of conflict disasters with environmental disasters over, for example, water and food. Populations facing disasters of these kinds will increasingly migrate across national borders as home regions become unlivable through the loss of, and resultant conflicts over, various basic life supporting resources. With refugee flows across borders expected to exponentially increase with the intensifying impacts of climate change, national governments will also increasingly default to migrant-receiving cities to cope with climate change refugees. This puts pressure on existing resources, imposes additional stresses on infrastructure, and worsens urban tensions. The increasingly extensive repercussions of climate change-related disasters demand joined up responses as a matter of urgency. Solutions need to run across the board and take account the connectivities between the causes, impacts, and experiences of climate change.
The conference was organised by Fiona Williamson, Michelle Miller, and Mike Douglass (ARI, NUS). Participants included representatives from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay; International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Vietnam; University of Southern Queensland, Australia; University of Hawaii, USA; Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems, Thailand; Institute for Population, Family and Children Studies, Vietnam; United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security, Germany, and Indonesian Institute of Sciences; Chiang Mai University, Thailand; University of Newcastle, Australia; Singapore Management University; University of Brunei Darussalam; National Institute of Advanced Studies, India; Social Policy and Poverty Research Group, Myanmar; University of Colorado Denver, USA; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, as well as National University of Singapore. The full programme and speaker details can be found here.
This conference was organized by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore; with support from Singapore Ministry of Education Tier 2 Grant – Governing Compound Disasters in Urbanizing Asia.
The global climate change, accelerated by anthropogenic interventions into the natural environment, has led to warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, extreme precipitation, harsh droughts, destructive storms and severe floods. Together, all these conditions contribute to the loss of livelihoods resulting from either slow or rapid onset disasters. Some estimates predict that over the next 40 years global climate change will compel up to 200 million people to migrate. According to the Asian Development Bank, approximately 37 million people in India, 22 million in China, and 21 million in Indonesia will be at risk of displacement from rising sea levels by 2050. Extreme weather conditions affect rural dwellers and farmers disproportionately more than urban and middle-class citizens.
Currently, the majority of environmental refugees are displaced internally, with cities being within home countries their primary destination. A study published in Climatic Change on the 20 most populous cities expected to be exposed to coastal flooding by 2070, placed Dhaka third, behind Mumbai and Calcutta. Also in the top 10 are Guangzhou, Ho Chi Min City, Shanghai, Bangkok and Yangon. Miami is the only city in the top 10 that is located outside of Asia. Asia’s urbanisation and the expansion of Asian megacities are trends accelerated by the influx of environmental refugees. As these trends continue, refugee movements are expected to increasingly witness the migration of people across national borders due to the extreme impacts of such massively impacting trends related to global climate change. In Asia, this will include not only sea rise but also the melting of the Himalaya-Tibetan glaciers that are the sources of the majority of riparian systems in continental Asia.
The term “environmental refugee” was first coined by Lester Brown in 1976, who was attempting to amalgamate similar concepts floating around at the time. “Environmental migrant”, “climate change migrant” or “environmentally displaced person” are similar terms with one commonality: they all define an individual who is displaced due to extreme changes in environmental conditions that reach a point at which continuing to dwell in a locality is no longer viable. To-date, climate refugees are not officially recognised or protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was adopted before human-driven climate change became its own global crisis, and entered the global consciousness. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants recognizes that climate change is becoming a driver for people to leave their homes. Still, the rules are written for those escaping war zones or persecution, not creeping desertification or weather disasters. While the 1951 Convention remains the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of governments, the world has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. No binding global agreements contain provisions for them, despite the first assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 suggesting that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration” (IPCC, 1990: 20).
The legal gap in the protection of environmental and climate change refugees poses a challenge to the nations such as Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which are likely to lose significant part of their land over the next 50 years. As the number of environmental and climate change refugees will reach up to 200 million in the next 40 years, climate change will become the leading cause of displacement. Unless the international community addresses the glaring absence of the legal protection and support of environmental refugees, cross-border violence, human trafficking and humanitarian crises, as seen by the example of Bangladeshi climate refugees to the Assam region of India, are likely to prevail.
The intersection of environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation is most evident in the case of Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. One quarter of Bangladesh and its 700 kilometres of low-lying coasts will be inundated by the end of the century. Sea rise will wipe out more cultivated land in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. Saltwater intrusion into low-lying coastal and rural areas has increased the saline content of groundwater, damaging fresh water supplies for human consumption and destroying the rice fields. By 2050, rice production is expected to drop by 10% and wheat production by 30%. In Bangladesh, the issues are magnified by the density of the population. The best current estimates state that rising sea levels alone will displace 18 million Bangladeshis within the next 40 years.
Dhaka is the fastest-growing megacity in the world. At least 400,000 people move to Dhaka every year, with 70% of Dhaka’s slum-dwellers having moved there fleeing environmental disruption. Most of the displaced Bangladeshis are from the Rangpur, Dinajpur and Gainbanda region basin area, where frequent floods and saline groundwater has destroyed the farmers’ livelihoods. Within two decades, the city’s population could double to 30 million. Supporting more than 14 million people on less than 325 km2 of land, the city’s drainage, waste management and transportation infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. The unsustainable levels of climate-induced displacement and migration causes a water supply-demand gap of 500m litres a day. It is estimated that currently 3.4 million people suffer from the scarcity of basic facilities like housing, healthcare, electricity and clean water. This number continues to increase exponentially.
Bangladesh contributes just 0.4 tonnes per capita to the carbon emissions (the US produces 17 and the UK 7.1), but the country, with Dhaka in particular, are suffering the hardest hit from environmental degradation caused by anthropogenic disruptions. Unsurprisingly, questions of environmental justice emerge, as the most polluting countries ought to share the burden. As discussed earlier, no international provision exists to protect environmental refugees. India, sharing more than 4,000km-long border with Bangladesh, is constructing a 3,400km of barbed wire fence. This makes the migration into India’s Assam dangerous and causes proliferation in human trafficking and smuggling of refugees escaping their lost livelihoods. In general, countries in South and East Asia have a bleak record of accepting refugees. Considering that the majority of environmental refugees in the next 40 years will come from countries in Asia, there is a danger of future socio-political contestation over migration policies in Asian countries.
The dynamics of environmental migration in Bangladesh foreshadow wider trends in Asia. Unsustainable urbanisation, proliferation of poverty and slum dwellers, depletion of vital resources, cross-border conflicts and ethnic violence will be the major challenges in the coming decades. Often, the nation-state apparatus proves ill-equipped to alleviate traumas caused by climate change migration. Increasingly, non-state actors, such as INGOs, MNCs and transnational diaspora communities appear to substitute the traditional role of a nation state in tackling humanitarian crises. The intertwinement of these megatrends is set to shape the face of migration politics and disaster governance in the Asia and the Pacific.
Brown, L., Mcgrath, P., and Stokes, B., 1976. Twenty Two Dimensions of the Population Problem. Washington DC: Worldwatch Institute.
Hanson, S., et al, 2011. A global ranking of port cities with high exposure to climate extremes. Climatic Change , 104, 89-111.
IPCC, 1990. Policymakers’ summary of the potential impacts of climate change. Report from Working Group II to IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Commonwealth of Australia.
Poppy McPherson (in The Guardian), 2015. Dhaka: the city where climate refugees are already a reality. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/dec/01/dhaka-city-climate-refugees-reality. [Accessed 2 December 2016].
Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore)