Climate Refugees

Spotlight: Myanmar

Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority country that has been characterized by a history of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and genocide of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya—an ethnic Muslim minority population from Rakhine State.327 In 2016, thousands have been killed and more than 730,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh.328 In 2019, Bangladesh stated that it could not accept any more refugees from neighboring Myanmar,329 yet conditions remain perilous for the 500,000 to 600,000 Rohingya still in Rakhine State.330 Political conflict and violence coupled with natural disasters contribute to the large volume of displacement within and across the country’s borders.

The largest economic sector in Myanmar is agriculture, which employs 61 percent of the country’s workforce and comprises 30 percent of the total GDP.331 Seventy percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas and relies on agriculture, livestock, and fisheries as a means of income and subsistence.332 Rising temperatures and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events333 have impacted agricultural production and escalated food insecurity in the country.334

Notably, the country’s central dry zone, inhabited by one-third of the total population,335 is particularly vulnerable to drought, further straining water resources for domestic and agricultural use.336 Droughts are also affecting the agrodiversity in the dry zone, and over the years there’s been an increase in pests, diseases, and the spread of invasive species, as well as wildfires induced by rising temperatures.337 As evidenced by Khindan—where people have been forced to leave the village to seek work in Thailand—reduced agricultural productivity has forced people to migrate from rural to urban centers, or to leave the country entirely.338

Additionally, Myanmar’s coastal regions are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. The sea level is predicted to rise from 20 to 41 centimeters by 2050 and from 37 to 83 centimeters by the end of the century.339 A 50-centimeter increase in sea level would submerge the current shoreline of the Ayeyarwady Delta, causing the delta to advance inland by 10 kilometers.340 The effects of sea-level rise in the country are already clear. In just the last 10 years, the coastal village of Khindan has experienced accelerated erosion of its seafront area. Even further, the village lost its freshwater well to rising sea levels—a well that used to be in the center of the village.341 As stated by one village resident who lost her home to the sea, “We feel like hermit crabs, we do not have a place to live.”342

Furthermore, extreme flooding brought on by monsoon rains has become a major cause of displacement within and outside of Myanmar as heavy rains and flooding destroy tens of thousands of acres of farmland, as well as houses, dams, and other vital infrastructure.343 In 2015, 1.7 million people were displaced due to deadly monsoon rains,344 and from 2016 to 2018, between 298,000 and 500,000 people have been displaced every year by natural disasters, mainly from heavy flooding and landslides.345

Climate crisis impacts are also expected to increase the intensity and frequency of cyclones in Myanmar, which are especially hazardous for the country’s residents. For example, Cyclone Nargis in 2008, a category 4 storm, tore through the low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta, taking the lives of 138,373 people and affecting an additional 2.4 million.346 Estimates predict that in the future, Myanmar can expect more than 560,000 people per year will be displaced by flooding and other sudden-onset disasters.347

Myanmar has signed and ratified the Paris Agreement. Additionally, the country has identified through its Sustainable Development Plan (2018–2030) that increasing resilience to the climate crisis and implementing strategies to better protect the country’s ecosystem, and environment, are essential to current and future development and stability.348 The government plans to lead the country toward a low-carbon and green economy that efficiently utilizes its natural resources through sustainable practices.349 However, despite any efforts to build climate crisis resilience for vulnerable communities and the environment, the government’s actions will be duplicitous as long as the egregious human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of the Rohingya Muslims continues.

  • 327. “Rohingya genocide is still going on, says top UN investigator,” The Guardian, (October 24, 2018), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/ world/2018/oct/24/rohingya-genocide-is-still-going-on-says-top-un-investigator.
  • 328. “Myanmar Events of 2018,” Human Rights Watch, accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/burma
  • 329. Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Rohingya crisis: Bangladesh says it will not accept any more Myanmar refugees,” The Guardian, (March 1, 2019), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/ mar/01/rohingya-crisis-bangladesh-says-it-will-not-accept-any-more-myanmar-refugees.
  • 330. Human Rights Watch, “Myanmar Events of 2018.”
  • 331. Myanmar Climate Change Strategy (2018–2030), Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2019), 20.
  • 332. Myanmar’s Initial National Communication Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (2012), i, ii.
  • 333. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Climate Change Strategy (2018–2030), Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2019), 20.
  • 334. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Climate Change Strategy, 18.
  • 335. Libby Hogan, “‘We feel like hermit crabs’: Myanmar’s climate dispossessed,” The Guardian, (November 1, 2018), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/nov/01/wefeel-like-h....
  • 336. “Addressing Climate Change Risks on Water Resources and Food Security in the Dry Zone of Myanmar,” UN Development Programme 2019, accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.adaptation-undp.org/projects/ af-myanmar.
  • 337. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Climate Change Strategy, 61.
  • 338. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Climate Change Strategy, 18.
  • 339. The Urgent Need to Prepare for Climate Displacement in Myanmar: Establishing a Myanmar National Climate Land Bank, reliefweb, (2018), 7, accessed June 28, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/ DIS5757%20Myanmar%20National%20Climate%20 81 belonging.berkeley.edu @haasinstitute Land%20Bank%20report%20v3_1%20ISSUU.pdf.
  • 340. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Climate Change Strategy, 47.
  • 341. Hogan, “‘We feel like hermit crabs.’”
  • 342. Ibid.
  • 343. “Myanmar declares emergency as flooding worsens,” AlJazeera, (August 1, 2015), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/08/ myanmar-declares-emergency-flooding-worsens-150801132441251.html.
  • 344. 2018 Interim Humanitarian Response Plan, reliefweb, (2017), 8, accessed June 28, 2019, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2018%20 Interim%20Humanitarian%20Response%20Plan_%20 Myanmar.pdf.
  • 345. “Myanmar,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, (2018), accessed June 28, 2019, http://www. internal-displacement.org/countries/myanmar.
  • 346. “Impact of Climate Change and the Case of Myanmar,” Myanmar Climate Change Alliance, accessed June 28, 2019, https://myanmarccalliance.org/en/ climate-change-basics/impact-of-climate-change-andthe-case-of-myanmar/
  • 347. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Myanmar.”
  • 348. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, 49.
  • 349. Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, 52.