Climate Migrants

25 01 2011

The UN estimates by 2050 there might be 200 million or so climate migrants. Like a third of New Orleans’ residents who never returned after Katrina, 200 million human beings could be on the move either because where they lived is gone – swallowed up expanding deserts or washed away in floods – or because catastrophes like Katrina become too frequent.

200,000,000. It’s a huge number, certainly larger than I – or most other people I know – can easily imagine. But suddenly, I might know two of them, and that makes the entire problem far more tangible for me than any UN report that informs me of the coming mass migration in dry prose.

The two? My parents.

When we visit Delhi, we stay at my grandparents’ place,  a modest three bedroom one-floor bungalow, built in 1968. For the time, and given the modest resources my grandparents had, it is impressively population- and climate- proofed. It faces a park, so we have some greenery. Hidden under the back garden area is a fairly large water tank that tides us over when the water doesn’t flow for a day or two from the urban supply. Most doors and windows are under some sort of cover to protect equally from Delhi’s scorching summers and torrential monsoon rains. Given the house hasn’t had anything other than a coat of paint on the outside in over 40 years, I would have said it’s in fantastic shape.

Then this year we came back to find that rains far from climatology for Delhi had struck, and flooded our neighborhood. Nearly six months after the last drop fell, parts of the house were still wet – the curtains were still soaked with water, and walls covered in mold and mildew. The windows are still covered in condensation as it dries, despite two weeks of regular venting that has left a pleasant damp cellar smell – on the ground floor.

And suddenly, the “if” has become a “when” – “if we had to do some work on the house” is now often rendered “when we do the work on the house”.

If we stay in the house, we have a range of options. A “minimum” approach might be to dry the entire house, replace parts of the floor, put on some new paint and be happy with the house. A “maximum” approach might be to tear down the house and start over, trying to predict what we need to build a house that can withstand two generations of climate change. Some thoughts we’ve already had include more local water storage, local power generation through solar PV, better drainage, rainwater harvesting systems, a green roof, solar cooling and water heating, triple-paned glass that gives us nearly air-tight seals between the house and the outside, high efficiency appliances, and insane amounts of insulation that will give us a house that is fundamentally much better prepared for at least the next generation and a half.

And that’s only in the realm of “staying in the house”. The truth is, between Delhi’s oppressive heat, propensity to flood, and water shortages, not to mention its exploding population and suicidal traffic, it might well be best to move – and become, like so many others already, climate migrants. Moving to a place that may benefit from the change in climate – Canada, for example – is not a trivial matter, but it may mean a lower cost in terms of time and money down the line. Or we could move to an apartment here in Delhi, where the hassles of power, water, heating, cooling and everything else is shared amongst lots of families, instead of being borne primarily by just one family; a place better served by Delhi’s Metro system would be useful too.

Ultimately, whatever ends up happening, I now have a very personal connection to the coming climate migration. In some ways, it makes me happy to be a third culture kid – having shallow roots means its easier to get up and go. But I wonder what kind of world we’re leaving for our progeny, if we’re already wondering about how best to run away from the climate.


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