China Tops Table for Disaster-Induced Displacement of People

More than a third of all people forced from their homes by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes in the past five years were in China, says a new report from the leading international body on displacement.

Around 49.8 million Chinese people were displaced by natural hazards between 2008 and 2012, nearly 35% of the global total (143.9 million) and the highest of any country, calculates the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

The figure is almost double that of India, the nation with the second biggest displacement toll. Asia in general bore the brunt of the impacts, with 81% of global displacement over the past five years occurring on the continent, according to the report released this week.

Climate and extreme weather events were found to be the key culprits for displacement globally: such hazards were responsible for 98% of all 32.4 million people uprooted from their homes in 2012.

China also experienced the world’s two largest disaster-induced mass displacement events during this period, says the report. The devastating monsoon floods of 2010 drove 15.2 million people from their homes, while the 2008 Sichuan earthquake displaced 15 million.

More recent events have also wreaked havoc in China, notably a string of severe summer storms in 2012 which collectively broke a number of extreme weather records. The worst of them, Typhoon Haikui, displaced more than 2 million people in Eastern China in August after destroying more than 4,400 homes in Zhejiang province alone.

Chinese government figures back up the latest statistics. Around 290 million people across thirty-one Chinese provinces were affected by disasters induced by climate and weather related events in 2012, resulting in direct economic losses of over 418 billion yuan (US$68 billion), according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National Committee for Disaster Reduction. Extreme events destroyed 906,000 houses and severely damaged another 1.46 million, with a disproportionate impact felt in poorer regions, the committee has said.

Globally, the risk of displacement is expected to rise as populations grow, rapid urbanization continues, and climate change increases the frequency and severity of weather events such as floods and storms, says the IDMC. Although deaths associated with major weather-related hazards are falling, increasing numbers of disaster survivors will be forced from their homes, it adds.

The IDMC is urging governments to do more to protect vulnerable people. “The level of displacement risk will be greatly influenced by how well countries and communities are able to strengthen disaster prevention, preparedness and response to adapt to new realities,” its report says.

The new findings come as economist and climate change expert Lord Stern issued a bleak warning about future displacement linked to global warming. “When temperatures rise to that level [5 degrees C], we will have disrupted weather patterns and spreading deserts,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homelands because their crops and animals will have died.

“The trouble will come when they try to migrate into new lands, however. That will bring them into armed conflict with people already living there. Nor will it be an occasional occurrence. It could become a permanent feature of life on Earth.”