Climate change to push up millions, especially in Asia

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – The walls of Saifullah’s home in northern Jakarta are edged like tree rings, marking how high the floodwaters have reached each year – more than four feet from the damp dirt floor.

When the water gets too high, Saifullah, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, sends his family to stay with friends. He guards the house until the water can be drained using a makeshift pump. If the pump stops working, he uses a bucket or just waits until the water recedes.

“It’s a normal thing here,” said Saifullah, 73. “But this is our home. Where are we going?”

As the world’s fastest declining metropolis, Jakarta shows how climate change is making more places uninhabitable. With an estimated one-third of the city expected to be underwater in the coming decades – partly due to the rising Java Sea – the Indonesian government plans to move its capital about 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) northeast to the island of Borneo, relocating so many as 1.5 million civil servants.

It is a huge commitment and part of the mass movement of people that is expected to accelerate in the coming years.

A staggering 143 million people are likely to be uprooted over the next 30 years by rising seas, droughts, scorching temperatures and other climate disasters, according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published on Monday by the United Nations.

In Asia, governments are already struggling to deal with it.

One in three migrants in the world today comes from Asia, leading the world in the number of people forced to flee by extreme weather, largely storms and floods, according to the report. With rural villages being emptied and megacities like Jakarta in danger, researchers are predicting migratory flows and the need for planned relocations will only grow.

“During all global warming levels, some regions that are currently densely populated will become insecure or uninhabitable,” the report said.

It is estimated that as many as 40 million people in South Asia will be forced to relocate over the next 30 years due to water shortages, crop failure, storm surges and other disasters.

Rising temperatures are particularly worrying, says environmentalist Chris Field at Stanford University, who led the UN report in previous years.

“There are relatively few places on earth that are simply too hot to live now,” he said. “But it’s starting to look like in Asia, there may be more of them in the future and we need to think carefully about the consequences of that.”

No nation offers asylum or other legal protection to people who have been displaced specifically due to climate change, although the Biden administration has studied the idea.

People are leaving their homes for a variety of reasons, including violence and poverty, but what is happening in Bangladesh shows the role that climate change also plays, says Amali Tower, who founded the organization Climate Refugees.

Researchers predict that as many as 2 million people in the low-lying country may be on the run from rising seas by 2050. Already, more than 2,000 migrants arrive in its capital Dhaka every day, many fleeing coastal cities.

“You can see the actual movement of people. You can actually see the increasing disasters. It’s obvious,” Tower said.

Migration flows could be slowed down if countries such as the United States and European nations now act to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to zero, she said. Others say that richer countries that produce more emissions should offer humanitarian visas to people from countries that are disproportionately affected.

Dealing with climate migrants will be an important political issue for sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America in the coming decades, according to the UN report. Most people will move from the countryside to the cities, especially in Asia where two thirds of the population may be urban in 30 years.

“It’s mainly people who migrate from the countryside and then probably squat in a slum somewhere,” said Abhas Jha, an internship manager at the World Bank’s Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management in South Asia.

Migration does not have to cause a crisis, says Vittoria Zanuso, executive director of the Mayors Migration Council, a global group of city leaders.

In the northern part of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, for example, officials are building shelters for climate migrants and improving water supplies. They are also working with smaller cities to be named “climate paradises” that welcome migrants, Zanuso said.

The influx of new labor offers smaller cities an opportunity for economic growth, she said. And it prevents migrants who can escape from villages threatened by rising seas from seeking refuge in a city with scarce water resources and, in principle, “exchanging one climate risk for another.”

In the coming years, she said, it will be key to help prepare cities for the influx of migrants: “They are on the front lines.”


Watson reported from San Diego. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’ climate and environmental monitoring receives support from several private foundations. See more about the AP’s climate investment here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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