The next great flood – of human beings

When global warming forces millions of people to migrate, there will be a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Several ancient mythologies recount great floods. Dating back some 3,640 years, the “Epic of Atrahasis” – written on three clay tablets in the Akkadian Empire of Mesopotamia – includes a creation myth and an account of a great flood. Tablet II begins with the evil god Enlil sending famine and drought to reduce the growing population. That doesn’t work, so Enlil decides to destroy humankind with a flood, swearing the good god Enki to secrecy.

Tablet III contains the flood story: how Enki warns the hero Atrahasis to dismantle his house and build a boat to escape the flood. Atrahasis takes his family and animals on board and seals the door. Violent storms and floods ensue, but Atrahasis is saved. Enlil is furious with Enki for breaking his oath, but Enki argues that he was only trying to preserve life.

The Akkadian setting for this mythological story is not far from present-day Syria, which has unwillingly contributed to a much quoted recent statistic. According to the United Nations, by mid-2015 the number of refugees and internally displaced people throughout the world had reached its highest point since 1945. One third of those refugees are from Syria and Afghanistan, while over half of the internally displaced people are from Syria and, surprisingly, Colombia.

According to the UN, by the end of 2015 there were some 244 million international migrants, of which 20 million were refugees. The number of refugees from the Syrian War alone has risen to over 4 million, with more than 7.6 million internally displaced, the two together accounting for more than half of Syria’s total population. Yet, these figures pale in comparison with the number of people likely to be directly affected by climate change.

Climate-change(1)Experts reckon that some 135 million more people could be displaced by 2045 as a result of land desertification. By 2050 this figure could rise to 200 million displaced by the impacts of climate change. The resulting mass movement of people will have a calamitous impact and carry huge political, social and economic costs.

Two billion people living in the driest regions – a staggering 41% of Earth’s land surface – are already affected by climate change. Seasonal or temporary migration has intensified and poor harvests, crop destruction and extreme drought are forcing the pace. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that over the last 40 years one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost to erosion, further exacerbating the situation.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris in December 2015 was the recognition given to the special vulnerability of food production to the impacts of climate change. And yet it is difficult to see how global food production and distribution can be adjusted – even if there were the political will to do so – to meet the needs of millions more displaced people.

The next great flood will be a humanitarian disaster. As a result of climate change parts of the world will be inundated, some worse than others, forcing millions and millions of people to migrate in their struggle for shelter, food, drinking water, and security. And this is not just a problem facing Pacific islands. When Manhattan, London, and Amsterdam are under water, where will people go? Inland, of course. The swelling numbers of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people today are a drop in the ocean compared to the catastrophe that awaits and from which even the good god Enki cannot save us.

Map of the world showing the coastal inundation caused by a six metre rise in sea levels. Major cities South and North will be flooded.

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