Photo credit: Charly W. Karl Source:

For years, Vancouver planners have warned that the city must do more to prepare for the effects of climate change. With sea levels set to rise nearly a metre by 2100, Vancouver will need to develop strategies and infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of floods, and water storage plans to allow the city to survive longer droughts.

But soon, cities will be forced to respond to another type of flood: that of refugees fleeing cities unable to adapt to the Earth’s changing climate.

A report in the New York Times last week paints a distressing picture of a municipality many don’t think of when they think of climate change and cities: Mexico City.  

The city is located high in the mountains, away from rising seas. As the Times report notes, the trouble in Mexico City is water shortages. The shortages are forcing officials to drill more water wells, further weakening the clay lake beds on which the Aztecs first built the city. Homes, schools, and other infrastructure are crumbling. The Times cites a study that found 10 per cent of Mexicans aged 15 to 65 could be forced to flee the country due to rising temperatures, droughts and flooding, creating another potential refugee crisis.

“Cities are first and foremost about water: no water, no city,” former Vancouver City Councillor and SFU City Program director Gordon Price wrote in response to the report. “And the consequences of urban water crises can be global.”

Researchers Daria Mokhnacheva, Dina Ionesco, and Francois Gemme tackled the response to that crisis in The Atlas of Environmental Migration, released earlier this year.

“Environmental migration is a fact,” they wrote. Despite that, there are no financial, legal, or government frameworks “specifically dedicated to environmental migration,” the researchers found. Because so many factors go into a decision to migrate, identifying someone as a “climate” refugee is tricky, and predicting how many people might be forced to move due to climate change is exceedingly difficult.

The experience of low-lying island communities in the Pacific could prove instructive. Writing in Natural Resources Forum in 2015, Simon Donner, an Associate Professor in UBC’s department of geography, says the resettlement of Gilbert and Phoenix Islanders could be a framework for understanding future climate migration.

Around 2,300 people from the communities were involved in mid-century resettlement to the Solomon Islands, after their home islands began to struggle with resource constraints and overcrowding.

Decades later, land tenure remains one of the most significant issues: “The findings may help inform thinking about resettlement due to climate change—including the importance of establishing and funding permanent mechanisms for dealing with land and resource disputes,” Donner writes.

By Jonny Wakefield, 23 Feb. 2017