Environmental refugees a growing phenomenon

October 15, 2006

By Amado S. Tolentino Jr.
Inquirer, Oct. 15, 2006

REFUGEES are people who seek asylum for fear of political, racial or religious persecution. They leave their homes because of war or civil strife. This traditional notion of refugees, however, leaves out the new and growing phenomenon of people becoming environmental refugees due to natural occurrences like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods and landslides.

The explosion of a nuclear reactor in Ukraine in 1986 best illustrates environmental refugeeism. The world’s worst nuclear disaster permanently contaminated the city of Chernobyl and prevented its residents from coming back home.

In the Philippines, mudslides triggered by heavy rains buried hundreds of houses and a school in Saint Bernard, Leyte last February resulting in death and injuries to people. The survivors became environmental refugees, unable to return to their village now covered by hardened mud.

Guimaras oil spill

Similarly, the massive oil spill from a sunken tanker off the coast of Guimaras Island in August drove many fishermen and tour operators away from their source of livelihood—marine areas once teeming with fish, mangroves, diving and snorkeling sites, and beaches now tainted with bunker fuel oil.

It took six months to clean up the damage caused by the Semirara oil spill in Antique last year and some more months before the fisherfolk could return to their source of livelihood. Experts say it will take years before Nueva Valencia, the hardest hit town in Guimaras, can fully recover from the economic and ecological disaster brought about by the sinking of Solar I. The threat of massive eruption of Mayon Volcano made residents on the slopes of the “perfect cone” short-time refugees. Now, residents of Irosin, Sorsogon face displacement if Mt. Bulusan erupts violently.

(For the full story, click Environmental refugees.)

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