By Caroline Fouvet
In 2017, flooding has so far been the main disaster to cause large-scale displacement of populations. Cyclones, typhoons and torrential rains forced 4.5 million people out of their home, with over two million people having to flee as a direct result of devastating flood events. The situation spreads across the globe, as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) presents in a list of affected countries that range from China to Peru and the United States. Usually, high human and economic costs are also main consequences of floods. Looking at the vulnerabilities and resulting challenges, it appears that flood-induced displacements are linked to various factors and raise new legal and health concerns.
First, the occurrence of seasonal weather events leading to floods, such as monsoons, depends on the location of some countries. This, at least partly, explains why almost half of the displacements due to natural disasters took place in East Asia according to IDMC. Developed countries in the northern hemisphere aren’t spared either by those phenomena, as the current hurricane season in the US is showing, but also back in 2005 when Katrina wreaked havoc.
In addition to seasonal events, the location of low-lying regions increases their vulnerability to flooding resulting from storm surges or overflowing rivers. In Peru for instance, where 293,000 were displaced this year following record rainfalls, about half a million people live in flood plains. This makes the population even more at-risk of being forced out of their dwelling.
As climate change makes extreme weather events even more powerful and wetter, people living in such areas are likely to be more exposed to flooding and, without increased resilience measures, to be permanently displaced.
Socioeconomic vulnerabilities also factor in when assessing a population’s risk of being displaced due to floods. High population density, inadequate infrastructure and lack of access to basic services put people in an even more precarious situation when flooding occurs. As poorest communities are often located in disaster-prone areas, given that they often cannot afford safer housing in more expensive zones, they are the main victims of floods and forced to relocate to similarly exposed places. Moreover, floods impact on vital economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture or fisheries and can pull out people from their place of residency as they lose their livelihoods. In Sri Lanka, the Food and Agriculture Organization already raised the alarm on this year’s flood impact on rice production, which is expected to drop by almost 40%.
As flooding pushes people far from their home, whether on a temporary or permanent basis, what are the implications and upcoming challenges to be faced? It seems that in a first time, new legal matters are to be considered since internally displaced people (IDP) currently do not benefit from an official status. The case of IDPs is often discussed in conflict situations but “disaster IDPs” also need a wider legal acknowledgement to guarantee their human rights and decent living conditions within the borders of their country.
Besides legal issues, the health of displaced people is likely to draw broader scrutiny as research shows that displacements provoked by natural disasters, in particular flooding, directly impacts mental health. According to a study, “housing is important to mental health and unsatisfactory living conditions could contribute to psychological stress and increase the likelihood of mental health disorders”. Early warning systems would alleviate the shock of flood-triggered displacements and have a positive impact on people’s long-term mental health.
Compounded by climate change, disasters resulting in large-scale flooding will continue to occurr regularly. Both developing and developed countries will be affected, thus amplifying internal population displacements. Addressing their vulnerabilities and the arising challenges could be a starting point to increase their resilience and face the consequences of environmental migration.