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Climate change resilience

How local communities can build resilience to climate change

Developing effective protection measures for those displaced by natural disasters and climate change

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

One of the world’s most densely populated countries, Bangladesh is also one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters, due to its low elevation and proximity to the storm- and cyclone-prone Bay of Bengal. Nearly 950,000 Bangladeshis were displaced by natural disasters in 2017, and climate change is expected to exacerbate the country’s migration crises.

On the frontlines of climate change, Bangladesh currently holds the chairmanship of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, an international effort to implement the recommendations of its predecessor, the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement. Ravi and Grant sit down with Walter Kaelin, Envoy of the Chair at the Platform on Disaster Displacement and former Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Kaelin reviews the work of the Nansen Initiative and the Platform, outlines the challenges of implementing effective protection and adaptation measures, and reflects on the links between disaster risk, displacement, and development.

The Platform on Disaster Displacement aims to include effective practices—outlined in the Nansen Initiative’s Protection Agenda—in international policy processes relating to natural disasters and displacement. “You really have to integrate displacement risks into disaster risk reduction measures,” Kaelin insists. While states initially conceptualized disaster risk and human mobility as separate issues, Kaelin argues that the Nansen Initiative was successful in demonstrating the need for a combined approach and the importance of harmonizing effective practices across states.

Walter Kaelin

Poor governance and inadequate infrastructure can exacerbate the impacts of disaster-related displacement. But how can the world’s most vulnerable countries—places like South Sudan or Yemen that are currently experiencing widespread conflict—develop effective disaster risk reduction and adaptation capacities? Kaelin points to promising solutions enacted by local communities in places like Somalia, “We know that local communities can go a long way in taking measures helping to build their resilience,” he says.

International efforts to address cross-border displacement typically take place at the highest levels of authority. “The fact is this international system is still built on the notion of sovereign states, of intergovernmental processes,” Kaelin says. “And it's very difficult to gain access … to these discussions.” How can affected communities make their voices heard in these negotiations? Kaelin highlights the need for civil society consultations at the subregional level to complement intergovernmental discussions.

“What you're talking about is the fact that natural disasters are not natural … Lack of governance or even bad governance are a very important factor … [in] why people are displaced.”

Kaelin discusses the inadequacies of humanitarian financing models, the utility of existing instruments to address internal displacement, and the need to integrate humanitarian action with long-term sustainable development initiatives. He insists that we have a good grasp of the overall challenge of disaster- and climate change-related displacement, as well as the most effective practices to ensure protection. “So it's not like we're totally helpless,” he says, “but what we really need is the political will … at each and every level: bottom-up, regional, international.”

Related Resources

The Global Compact on Migration: A Ray of Hope for Disaster-Displaced Persons — Walter Kaelin, International Journal of Refugee Law

In Harm’s Way — United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Taking Sendai Forward — International Organization for Migration

Our Island is Disappearing But the President Refuses to Act — Anote Tong and Matthieu Rytz, Washington Post

Climate Change, Migration, and Displacement: The Need for a Risk-Informed and Coherent Approach — Overseas Development Institute and United Nations Development Programme

‘Boats pass over where our land was:’ Bangladesh’s Climate Refugees — John Vidal, The Guardian

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.