A record seven million people were displaced from their homes by extreme weather in the first half of this year, marking 2019 as “one of the most disastrous years in almost two decades” before Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas or the rest of the Atlantic hurricane season got under way, the New York Times reports.
While the analysis behind the number is considered the best available, there’s still some concern that it understates the actual extent of the problem.
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“In today’s changing climate, mass displacement triggered by extreme weather events is becoming the norm,” reported the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), which has been publishing annual summaries of data from government, UN agencies, and media reports since 2003. The results for this year add up to “the highest mid-year figure ever reported for displacements associated with disasters”.
And “the worst may be still to come,” the Times adds. “Historically, the worst disaster season is between June and September, when storms lash the tropics. The monitoring centre estimates that the number of disaster-related displacements may grow to 22 million by the end of the year.”
And yet the news report points to a small silver lining in an otherwise dire assessment. “Extreme weather events are becoming more extreme in the era of climate change, according to scientists, and more people are exposed to them, especially in rapidly growing and storm-prone Asian cities,” the paper states. “At the same time, many government authorities have become better at preparing for extreme weather, with early warning systems and evacuation shelters in place that prevent mass casualties.”
Weather warning systems were one of the five major climate adaptation priorities that emerged last week, when the Global Commission on Adaptation called for a US$1.8 trillion investment by 2030 to prevent the world’s most vulnerable countries and regions from falling into a form of “climate apartheid”. And the recent history shows the contrasts between regions that are progressing well with adaptation measures and others that are falling behind. When Cyclone Fani hit India and Bangladesh in late April and early May, 3.4 million people were evacuated and fewer than 100 in both countries lost their lives. When Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar, more than 1,000 perished and 617,000 were displaced.
Elsewhere, “in March and April, half a million Iranians had to leave home and camp out in temporary shelters after a huge swath of the country saw some of the worst flooding in decades,” the Times notes. “And in Bolivia, heavy rains triggered floods and landslides in the first four months of the year, forcing more than 70,000 people to flee their homes, according to the report.”
“With the impact of climate change, in the future these types of hazards are expected to become more intense,” IDMC Director Alexandra Bilak. “Countries that are affected repeatedly like the Bahamas need to prepare for similar, if not worsening, trends.”
The Times cautions that the real situation on the ground may be worse still. Some outside experts said the IDMC data “may not adequately reflect…slow-moving extreme weather events, like rising temperatures or erratic rains that can prompt people to pack up and leave home, for example after multiple seasons of failed crops,” the Times notes. “In some cases, government agencies may not issue accurate data, including for political reasons.”
So while the IDMC’s figures are the best available, Kees van der Geest of the UN’s Institute for Environment and Human Security said they should be treated as a “low estimate”.
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