There's No Place Like Home

Imagine being told to grab what you could and leave your home behind with little hope of returning. For millions every year, this is not a hypothetical idea. According to a recent report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), approximately 42 million people were displaced within their own country by natural disasters in 2010 alone. That’s like the entire population of California having to go somewhere else in the U.S.

The devastating drought currently wrecking the Horn of Africa is one of many sad episodes that annually produce waves of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees, those who flee across a national border. IDPs include people like Hawo, a 75-year-old Somali matriarch who once presided over a herd of 500 goats and sheep that helped support her eight children and their families. As she relayed to World Vision, when drought dried up the pastures and her way of life, she was forced to move to the northern part of the country where she has been reduced to begging for water to go with the rations she receives from the World Food Programme.

While an event may stay on the media radar for only a matter of days, its local impact likely lasts for years. There were 30 disasters in 2010 that displaced at least 100,000 people each: China’s Yangtze River flooded in the spring and made almost 7 million people homeless; massive summer floods in Pakistan displaced 11 million; and later, fall floods in Nigeria uprooted another half a million. Many more, like Hawo, are displaced by droughts, but no reliable numbers are available for these slower building tragedies. To put these figures in context, Hurricane Katrina displaced approximately 1 million Americans in 2005—many of whom are still feeling those effects.

Such disasters are not new, but human activity is increasing the frequency with which these calamities occur. More people than ever live in high-risk areas like floodplains, hillsides prone to fires and mudslides, or coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes. Poor land use practices also play a big role in amplifying the magnitude of disasters, especially floods. Increased urbanization brings with it more concrete, brick and asphalt and reduces the amount of run-off, slowing vegetation. City streams become more flood-prone even as shanty-towns grow along their banks. On a regional level, deforestation and eroding agricultural practices can increase the magnitude of floods and exacerbate droughts.

These natural causes are often magnified even more by the other major factor that produces IDPs—armed conflict. The most recent figures from IDMC estimate another 27.5 million people are currently displaced by violence. Unfortunately, the environmental and human-made causes of displacement often combine in places like Somalia, where the drought that pushed Hawo from her pastoral homeland is compounded by years of civil war that have hindered development and aid.

“Long-term displacement, as in the case of northern Uganda, erodes the fabric of the social structure." —Andrew Briggs

Thousands of Somalis are on the move to try and survive. Abdullahi Edin and his two daughters walked for nine days to a feeding center in Mogadishu. Edin told Aljazeera that his wife of 25 years only made it to day four before she died. What is left of the family now lives in a makeshift hut made of sticks and scraps of fabric.

The lack of natural resources also leads to violence—and, in turn, violent conflict can set the table for natural disasters. Craig Sorley, who works with Care of Creation Kenya, reports that in a single day “eight women were killed … due to violence that erupted over conflicts for scarce pasture and water resources” in a drought-impacted area. Andrew Briggs, founder of the group Freedom in Creation—which provides clean water and hope through the arts to former child soldiers and those displaced by war in Uganda—explains, “The desperation of IDPs often brings a survival mentality and shortsightedness that fosters long-term environmental and livelihood degradation.

“Long-term displacement,” Briggs continues, “as in the case of northern Uganda, erodes the fabric of the social structure and, where oral tradition abounds, quickly evaporates pragmatic agriculture and livelihood-based education vital for the preservation of identity, health and survival.” The need for resources, like wood to make charcoal, often trumps the sustainability of an area that IDPs do not consider home, and so Briggs has seen deforestation that alters natural filtration systems crucial for clean water and leaves hillsides vulnerable to mudslides.

Lurking in the background is climate change. In an online report released in June, Scientific American confirms extreme weather events are becoming more common. And the data strongly suggests this rise in extreme weather is tied to the rise in greenhouse gases. Climate change may not be the sole cause of any one disaster, but it “loads the dice.”

Sir John Houghton, a leading British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical Christian, has noted that up to 150 million people may be on the move because of climate change by 2050. This could be due to increased disasters and steadily rising sea levels that particularly threaten densely populated but low-lying countries like Bangladesh.

The lack of natural resources also leads to violence—and, in turn, violent conflict can set the table for natural disasters.

At times, the grim assessments can feel overwhelming. Certainly, Christians should always be there to stop the bleeding after disaster strikes, but taking steps that foster the healing and long-term resiliency of at-risk areas may be even more important. In other words, provide splints, not just Band-Aids.

Some organizations are already employing a more holistic approach. Plant with Purpose has worked in Haiti for years, seeking to reverse the country’s cycle of poverty and environmental degradation through tree-planting, erosion barriers, agricultural education and partnerships with local churches. Scott Sabin, the group’s executive director, says the efforts paid dividends in 2008 when multiple hurricanes hit the island. “It meant the difference between crops surviving and entire farms washing away. As a result we had a huge surge in interest in what we were doing by those who had been skeptical.” After the 2010 earthquake devastated the urban core of the country, this work was tested again as the rural landscape was called upon to support a massive IDP influx. Haiti still has a long way to go, but every one of the 671,144 trees planted in the year after the quake has been a step toward restoration.

Craig Sorley is also planting seeds of hope in the Horn of Africa. Care of Creation Kenya’s “Farming God’s Way” program trains local people in a no-till technique that increases productivity while reducing the need for chemical inputs. Sorley was recognized by Time magazine as one of its 2008 “Heroes of the Environment,” but he is probably happier to see the 2011 crop of beans in Farming God’s Way plots doing three times better than standard local practices.

As Ed Brown, executive director of Care of Creation, says: “Rather than send you a picture of a starving child, describing the tragedy that is, we would rather you look at the healthy plants … and think about what could be.”

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