Extreme weather was the biggest reason for people to flee homes in 2020

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 20 May 2021 16:08 GMT

A woman walks with a child in a displacement camp in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado, in this handout picture taken January 26, 2021. Rui Mutemba/Save the Children

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Wilder weather linked to climate change caused 98% of last year's displacements, with many from short-term evacuations but others lasting months or longer

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Extreme weather linked to climate change and mass evacuations to protect those at risk are driving a global surge in families forced from their homes, with a share remaining displaced long-term, analysts said on Thursday.

About 98% of new movements of people from their houses in 2020 were caused by extreme weather, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) said in a report.

Some of them were able to return home quickly after evacuations, said Alexandra Bilak, IDMC's director.

But from Australian families who lost houses to record bushfires to Pacific islanders slammed by Cyclone Harold and the five million South Asians evacuated ahead of Cyclone Amphan last year, a growing share are struggling to recover and return.

"Displacement can last for months or even years," Bilak told reporters during an online event. She said rich countries were increasingly experiencing a share of the displacement, such as U.S. families hit by worsening Atlantic hurricanes.

Even for those evacuated from their homes temporarily, Bilak said "it still does represent a shock".

Globally, about 55 million people remained displaced within their own countries at the end of 2020, a record high, researchers found.

Most of them had been forced from their homes by violence in earlier years, though ongoing conflicts swelled the numbers last year, Bilak said.

Ethiopia saw half a million new displacements triggered by violence in 2020, particularly in the Tigray region, while internal displacement has risen 10-fold in Burkina Faso over the last two years, to more than a million people, she said.

But in a year of increasingly intense storms and floods, more than 40 million displacements - many temporary - were recorded as a result of weather-related disasters.

"It is particularly concerning that these high figures were recorded against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, when movement restrictions obstructed data collection and fewer people sought out emergency shelters for fear of infection," Bilak said.

'X-RAY' FOR HUMANITY

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the pandemic had not slowed conflicts, as analysts had earlier hoped, helping drive up overall displacement.

He called the IDMC's annual tally of people forced from their homes "an x-ray of how it's going for humanity", noting that last year the poor had been particularly hard-hit by extreme weather, conflict and pandemic-linked economic woes.

"For people living on $1 a day, they lost that $1 a day because of lockdowns and the whole economic paralysis because of the pandemic," he said, calling 2020 "an economic catastrophe for displaced people".

To counter worsening weather-related displacements, local governments need better data to help them prepare, particularly risk assessments that profile how certain hazards might play out in particular areas, Bilak said.

That might not lower overall evacuations but could help keep those from turning into extended displacement, she said, by helping governments put recovery and rebuilding plans in place.

Early warning systems and other disaster preparedness measures also are helping cut longer-term displacement, she said.

She said such measures were "the difference between Mozambique and Japan - both are exposed to hazards, with high numbers evacuated, but the number still counted as displaced at the end of the year is very different".

The more serious problem, said Bina Desai, head of policy and research at IDMC, is that strengthening impacts from planetary heating threaten to leave more disaster-vulnerable places permanently uninhabitable.

As sea levels rise, and drought and other warming-driven problems grow, "increasingly people will not be able to return to some of the regions significantly affected by climate change," she said.

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(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Editing by Helen Popper: (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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