There were about 25 million ecomigrants in the world a little more than a decade ago, said Norman Myers, a respected British environmental researcher at Oxford University. That number is now "a good deal higher," he added. "It's plain that sea-level rise in the wake of climate change will inundate the homelands of huge numbers of people."Editorial comment: UNESCO has a program utilizing its expertise in education, science, culture and communications to help small island developing states meet their development problems. Climate change will be especially devastating for those states, and UNESCO can help them to deal with the challenge. UNESCO natural science programs play an important role in encouraging the global scientific community to develop the understanding of natural resources and ecology, and that knowledge should underly all policy related to ecomigration. So too, UNESCO social and human science program can illuminate the phenomenon of ecomigration and its impacts.
In Bangladesh, about 12 million to 17 million people have fled their homes in recent decades because of environmental disasters -- and the low-lying country is likely to experience more intense flooding in the future. In several countries in Africa's Sahel region, bordering the Sahara, about 10 million people have been driven to move by droughts and famines.
In the Philippines, upwards of 4 million people have moved from lowlands to highlands as a result of deforestation. And in an earlier era, about 2.5 million Americans became ecomigrants after droughts and land degradation during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
UNESCO's education programs can help prepare people for ecomigration, both in the the countries that they will have to leave and in the countries to which they will have to move. The communications program may help countries deal with the use of media for the same purpose. Perhaps especially relevant will be efforts by UNESCO to help ecomigrants from these states to deal with the cultural impact of their forced migration.
That is not to say that the need for UNESCO services to assist other ecomigrants will be less acute or extensive. An ecomigrant fleeing from desertification in the Sahel will not face lesser challenges than one fleeting from inundation of his island home.
History suggests that when a people are forced into wholesale migration, violence often follows. UNESCO's primary mission is to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men, and doing so in the minds of ecomigrants may be especially important in the prevention of war.
(The opinions expressed are mine alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)