Does climate change cause displacement? (and more questions about data)

Dear Colleagues,

As we sweated through the hottest week on record in July, the reality of climate change confronts us all. Yet for some of us, the consequences are more dire than for others.

After five failed rainy seasons, Somalia has endured the longest drought in 40 years. The drought has affected almost half of the population and, last year, triggered over one million internal displacements – another grim record. Pastoralists in Kenya and Somalia have reported widespread loss of livestock, and many have had to abandon farming altogether. According to a study conducted by the World Bank, UNHCR and the JDC, forty percent of those who lost livestock reported severe or complete destruction of their herds – the biggest loss of assets was experienced by host communities and internally displaced people.

The study, The Toll of Drought on Displaced and Vulnerable People in Somalia, details the socioeconomic effect that the drought had on refugees, internally displaced people, returnees and host communities. Almost as severe as livestock loss was crop loss, which forced more than half of the host communities and internally displaced people surveyed to abandon farming. Under the circumstances, farming and pastoralist communities across East Africa have little choice but to depend on aid, raising the question ‘what comes after drought?’

The answer is development. But how do we ensure that the development programs not only meet the needs of these populations, but prepare them for future shocks? The answer to this question is always the same – it’s data. The World Bank and UNHCR recently made a major commitment to provide data to development programs with the signing of the global Data Sharing Framework Agreement. The Agreement will facilitate timely access to socioeconomic data about refugees, internally displaced and stateless populations, enabling the World Bank to design programs that build long-term resilience, faster, while providing World Bank country data to UNHCR operations.

But the findings of the Somalia study also pose the question as to if, and to what degree, climate extremes cause displacement. This is something that Steven Goldfinch, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the Asian Development Bank, addressed in the latest JDC Digest – The impact of climate change on forced displacement. While he concludes that they probably do, the degree is more difficult to determine.

And Mr Goldfinch is in a good position to judge. He is based in the Asia Pacific, the region that is most affected by disaster displacement. From 2010 to 2021, the region saw over 225 million internal displacements – more than three-quarters of the global total. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reports that weather-related hazards caused 95% of this displacement.

The solid sources of climate data – such as sea levels, temperature and rainfall – coupled with the increasing wealth of data on displacement, allow for further examination by researchers to determine the relationship between the two. And if the causes of displacement can be quantified, then adaptation and disaster risk reduction resources could be effectively targeted, reducing both the impact of disasters and mitigating the risk of displacement.

Yours sincerely,

 Björn Gillsäter

Head of the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement

PS – This is my last Newsletter as Head of the Joint Data Center. It was my honor and privilege to establish the Center back in 2019 and to lead it for the past four years – it has been a rewarding time, with outstanding colleagues, strong and committed parent institutions, and supportive and generous donors and stakeholders. I firmly believe that we – the international community – are far better equipped to support the 108 million forcibly displaced people today, thanks to the wealth of data and evidence available. At the JDC, we have funded, advised, cajoled, shouted, and begged for more, better and shared (socioeconomic) data, so that policies are better informed by evidence and the financial support more efficiently allocated. Thank you for engaging with us – keep it coming, much still remains to be done!