Children in refugee camp

The visible impacts of climate change, including extreme heat and drought, and the resulting wildfires, and extreme flooding are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, with 2022 being a record year in all the wrong ways.

Record-breaking temperatures were recorded across all continents in 2022, with an exceptionally heavy toll on glaciers in the European Alps whereby record-shattering melt led to average thickness losses of 3-4 metres, while it rained, rather than snowed, at the Greenland ice sheet for the first time in September 2022.

Extreme heat waves in June and July 2022 killed over 16,000 people in Europe, based on excess mortality data - with the actual number expected to be higher. The resulting drought caused significant agricultural damage, lowered hydropower generation, reduced shipping on several important European rivers - such as the Danube, Rhine, and Po - and damaged buildings as land subsided, with combined estimated costs of $20 billion.

Estimates suggest that there will be more than 200 million environmental refugees globally by 2050 due to the impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise, water security issues, and increased drought / flooding and extreme weather events."

Professor Iseult Lynch and Tahmina Yasmin - University of Birmingham

Melting glaciers from record spring temperatures and heavy summer monsoon rain combined to bring historic flooding across a large part of Pakistan from July through September, resulting in almost 1,700 deaths and displacement of 7.9 million people3.

As noted in a report from the UN Refugee Agency “The impacts of climate change do not discriminate between citizens and refugees”. The report notes that there over 1.3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, over 421,000 of whom live in the districts worst affected by the flooding, whose lives have been upended again by the catastrophic flooding.4

Estimates suggest that there will be more than 200 million environmental refugees globally by 2050 due to the impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise, water security issues, and increased drought / flooding and extreme weather events. Indeed, the challenges are so great that the UN has appointed its first-ever Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change.

The recent decision at COP27 in Egypt, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan on a ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund for Vulnerable Countries has confirmed a commitment to set up a financial support structure for the most vulnerable countries by the next COP in 2023, and the post-2025 finance goal. This will operationalise the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, established at COP25 as part of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (Loss and Damage Mechanism), which aims to “catalyse the technical assistance of relevant organizations, bodies, networks and experts, for the implementation of relevant approaches at the local, national and regional level, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” One important aspect of this will be ensuring that long-term provision for climate refugees is considered, through a system governance approach, to prevent repeated cycles of displacement for the most vulnerable of our fellow humans - as has just happened to refugees in camps in Pakistan.

Our recent work on developing a system approach to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) resilience and sustainability in refugee communities highlights the fact that the current short-term emergency response approach to supporting refuges through ‘camps’ is increasingly challenged by climate uncertainty and might jeopardize the goal of a sustainable future.

Camps are considered as temporary shelters before any viable long-term solution to displacement, such as repatriation or integration into the hosting community, can be achieved. Locating camps in disaster-prone or climate hotspot areas, itself increases their vulnerability and is coupled with stress arising from overcrowding that increases pressure on WaSH infrastructure and services access. This leads to overexploitation of resources which increases water insecurity (ground water depletion; surface water pollution; changed dynamics of up- and downstream flow of river) and overall environmental pollution, such as wastewater discharge into rivers or soil).

Our review of the barriers to sustainability of WaSH in a refugee context identified three key areas:

  • the fact that environmental health is not widely considered;
  • the absence of system-wide sustainability pre-planning in access and services quality in camps’; and
  • the lack of consideration of other interrelated factors (i.e., ecological, institutional, cultural and knowledge management) to understand their influence and or nexus behaviour.

The ‘alternatives to camps’ approach, defined in the UNHCR policy as strategies to integrate refugees with the host community upon their arrival or as soon as possible thereafter, considers the longer-term perspective for the refugees and that of the host-community. Inclusive governance approaches, such as involving host and refugee communities in decision-making – for example around setting up shelters, latrines and bathing facilities, and providing food and drinking water – is key to understanding the cultural and social differences that will support WaSH sustainability.

Planning and implementation of the ‘Loss and Damage’ fund and designing appropriate interventions offer a unique opportunity to implement ‘alternatives to camps’ approaches from the outset. This will ensure that the resulting infrastructure and other improvements implemented are of long-term benefit to both host and refugee communities, as well as securing their continuing water security and climate change resilience. We look forward to feeding into these discourses and supporting the achievement of sustainable and resilient WaSH for climate refugees and their host communities globally.

Professor Iseult Lynch and Tahmina Yasmin - Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham