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Displacement solutions

August 15, 2011

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, the head of a pioneering NGO talks about his organization's campaign to ensure people displaced by climate change have adequate rehabilitation options.

Over six million Bangladeshis have been displaced by climate change already
Over six million Bangladeshis have already been displaced by climate changeImage: Scott Leckie

Scott Leckie is the director of Displacement Solutions, an NGO that develops practical housing, land and property (HLP) rights-based strategies designed to assist in resolving situations of displacement.

Deutsche Welle: Could you outline the work of your organization?

Scott Leckie: Displacement solutions works throughout the world to solve displacement - either from conflict, disaster or climate change. In recent years, we've been devoting increasing amounts of energy, time and resources to the whole question of climate displacement, particularly in five heavily-affected countries - Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Maldives.

Tell us a little more about Bangladesh since it is the most affected country today.

All future predictions point to it being the most heavily affected country in the world. Estimates range from between 10 and 40 million people being displaced over time, depending on how high the seas rise and how severe the storms become.

Scott Leckie is the head of Displacement Solutions
Scott Leckie is optimistic that looming crisis can be averted if governments plan aheadImage: Kadir van Lohuizen

There are currently six and a half million people displaced by environmental factors - severe storms, flooding, coastal inundation - phenomena which have been manifested in greatly exaggerated ways compared to the norm in recent years.

In many parts of the country, people are living on top of embankments - levees, dykes, that are two meters, three meters wide. There is a 25-meter long embankment with 60,000 people living on top of it and they've been living there for years. They have no money, no assets, no healthcare and I think there's something like 98 percent unemployment. There's just nowhere for them to go.

We've calculated that for about six and a half million people displaced we need to find about 100,000 hectares of land. Since February we've been able to get about 3,000 hectares of land - all donated - some by local government agencies and local MPs but most of it from private individuals out of the goodness of their own heart and no economic benefit to them.

How cooperative is the government?

So far very cooperative. They are fully aware of the severity of the displacement crisis now and what it will certainly become. Very often when people are displaced for environmental reasons they will traditionally join the rural-to-urban exodus, very often people who are slum dwellers are there because they lost their home because of a mudslide or a big storm. But the slums in Dhaka are pretty much full so the only real opportunity for these people is new land.

The only highland in the country is in the Chittagong hill tracks in the eastern part of the country, which has been very volatile in the past. It’s peaceful now and many families have already moved there successfully without any tension whatsoever.

We need the government to identify land in every single province of the country, every district and sub-district. We believe there should be a plan for each one of those districts and a target number of acres or hectares that can be allocated by each sub-district towards solving this problem and they can begin that process today - quite easily. It's one of those rare times that you can actually very easily plan ahead for a looming crisis.

What about the international community's efforts to curb the impact of climate change?

Climate Displaced Persons have found temporary housing atop a crumbling levee
Temporary solutions often run on for years or decadesImage: Scott Leckie

Well, just look at what happened in Copenhagen and in Cancun. We still have a long journey to travel and obviously the reluctance by the largest emitters to commit to proper measures to reduce carbon emissions is very disheartening. We know once these problems get underway they’re very difficult to stop and some people think we've passed the point of no return. I hope that’s not true but hundreds of millions of people displaced with nowhere to go is not really a recipe for economic, political or social stability.

What is the general awareness among the population?

It's very interesting when you talk to people in the currently affected countries. You can really divide the population into the ones who believe climate change is serious and those who don’t. Across the Pacific some 30 percent of the people probably believe they are safe because the Bible does not speak about a second big flood. But many have noticed the sea is getting higher and they are losing land. Sea walls are starting to appear all over the place.

Pretty much everybody, when you press them and ask them what they’re going to do when the sea level really rises, says that they are going to move in with their cousin in Auckland, an uncle in Melbourne or an aunt in London.

Are Western governments preparing for this eventuality?

None has issued a policy saying any climate-displaced person will be welcomed but all have different programs underway which are designed to promote regulated, well-organized migration, mainly for labor purposes and some for residency purposes. If you speak to Australian officials privately, they say off the record that no one is ever going to die because of climate change but that it takes time to adopt a policy to take large numbers of people in.

The Maldives
Many of the Maldives could be under water within decadesImage: picture-alliance / Godong

It's easy to come up with a plan that takes into consideration sea levels rising by a certain amount and determine how many people will be displaced in each country. For example, 10 percent go to Fiji, 10 percent to the Solomon Islands, 25 percent to New Zealand and the rest to Australia.

How many people work for Displacement Solutions?

Millions and millions! No, we have a staff of about five or six people and we have a registry of about 125 people who are experts on housing, land and property issues all around the world who we call on when we can. We act as the intermediary between the local groups and NGOs and the international community. One of our main tasks is to find the very best groups in each one of these countries and put them in direct contact with people at the international level that they would not otherwise have contact with and to share experiences and stories and to give them tools so that they can do the work better.

Interview: Anne Thomas
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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