World to see more people displaced because of disasters, urbanization

By , on September 19, 2014


Camp for African refugees and displaced people on the outskirts of Hargeisa in Somaliland under the auspices of the UN. It is one of the largest refugee camps. Photo by Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com.
Camp for African refugees and displaced people on the outskirts of Hargeisa in Somaliland under the auspices of the UN. It is one of the largest refugee camps. Photo by Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com.

Natural disasters displaced almost 22 million people around the world last year and aid workers say they expect to see that number rise in the future, according to a report issued by a Norwegian humanitarian group on Wednesday.

The study, authored by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, said that an average of 27 million people have been displaced each year since 2008 by natural disasters. Such displacement is estimated to have doubled in the past 40 years, as the world population grew and rapidly urbanized, the report added.

The annual report also said that the some 22 million people displaced by natural disasters last year was three times the number of people who left their homes because of conflict.

The figure tends to fluctuate, because disasters can strike at any time: It was 32 million in 2012, 15 million in 2011 and 42 million in 2010, when earthquakes hit Haiti and Chile.

“Most people have not woken up to the fact that disasters, natural disasters, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes (have) displaced many more people than wars and conflicts combined,” Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said at a U.N. briefing Wednesday.

A major cause for the increase in the number of people being displaced is the massive migration toward big cities in the developing world. This massing of people together in places that lack infrastructure makes them more vulnerable to natural disasters aggravated by climate change, the report said.

The world’s population has increased 96 per cent since the 1970s, and urban populations have grown 187 per cent, the report said. In developing countries, urban populations have jumped to 326 per cent.

“Urbanization has happened in a bad way, in very disaster-prone areas,” Egeland said. “The slums of the big cities, of growing cities become traps for people who are exposed to natural disasters.”

This was evident in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. When the quake struck, 86 per cent of the people living in the capital were living in poorly built concrete buildings, the report said. The official death toll was 316,000, and 1.5 million people were displaced.

The average number of people displaced by disasters has risen over the past four decades throughout the world, but Asia has been noticeably affected, the report said.

Here 80 per cent of the world’s displacement took place from 2008 to 2013. The region also accounted for the 14 largest displacements in 2013, and the five countries with the highest displacement levels were the Philippines, China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

The other region most vulnerable to massive displacement is Africa. With 1.1 billion people, Africa is growing faster than other regions, the report said. The population is supposed to double by 2050.

The countries with the highest number of people displaced by rapid-onset disasters over the six-year period were China, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the U.S., the report said. All but the Philippines are among the world’s 10 most populous countries. China, the world’s most populous country, had some of the highest displacement levels each year both in absolute terms and relative to its population size, as did Nigeria, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Egeland and others hope to share the report at a climate summit next week as world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The message they plan to relay: “Natural disaster displacement has gone through the roof, with population growth, increasing vulnerability,” Egeland said. “It will be accelerating now with extreme weather being produced by climate change.”

The authors of the report also note that the spike in displacement numbers can be attributed to improved data collection.