Plastic waste has doubled since 2000: what this means in the hurricane season.

On 1 June, the Atlantic Hurricane Season was officially opened. Four days later, on 5 June, we recognized World Environment Day under the theme #BeatPlasticPollution. What is the connection between plastic pollution, hurricanes, and migration?

Hurricanes, in and of themselves, can cause extreme loss of life, livelihood, and property. While traditionally we focus on the threat caused by the high winds of hurricanes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), water hazards (not wind!) are historically the deadliest hazards connected with hurricanes.     

While climate change is causing an increase in the intensity of extreme storms, the Caribbean has also been heavily impacted by storm surges and storm tides, heavy rainfall, and inland flooding. In the Caribbean experience, inland and coastal flooding has become more frequent and has caused significant displacement of people and economic and social disruptions.   

Here’s where plastic pollution becomes a tangible issue for the Caribbean.

Plastic pollution blocks drainage systems, including street drains, canals, rivers, and ravines, and makes flooding events more severe, as water is trapped by the plastic and other trash, builds up, and runs over as flood waters. 

Research has shown that plastic waste has more than doubled globally since 2000. This, in turn, creates conditions for flooding to be more harmful, potentially resulting in increased damage and displacement.

What is the consequence of this dangerous mix? Records show that an increasing number of people are being displaced from their homes by disasters. In the Caribbean, 1.3 million new displacements due to disasters were registered between 2018 and 2021. In 2022, there were 2.6 million new internal displacements due to disasters across the Americas.

When people are displaced by disasters, their human rights are often affected negatively. It is well recognized that without adequate frameworks, people displaced by disasters and environmental migrants can be exposed to new risks, suffering from a lack of protection and enhanced vulnerability. In this way, displaced people feel some of the same inequalities migrants face: reduced access to public health care, discrimination, and lack of access to decent working conditions, for instance.   

Governments and other stakeholders can act against this growing menace. Research has shown that harmonizing national policies and establishing regional protocols in the Caribbean region would positively affect the capacities of states to provide comprehensive responses to displacement, with due consideration given to human rights and the threats to human security.

Where good frameworks are developed through a people-centered approach focusing on the complex effects -increased by plastic pollution- of disasters on human security, human mobility can be a positive means for adaptation, reducing harm and enabling positive outcomes. 

Planning in a manner that empowers the people affected can result in well-designed, safe, and orderly evacuation processes, incorporating indigenous knowledge as a source of resilience to climate change and reducing exposure to hazards, including through planned relocation with a holistic approach of empowerment, protection, and with people at the center.

So, as we enter this hurricane season, let’s take an approach where we all recognize the role that we can play in mitigating disaster risk. Let’s do what we can to reduce plastic pollution in our communities, play our role in preparing our households, communities, and countries to be resilient in the face of the potential risks, and thus lessen the drivers of displacement.   

However, if the eventuality arises where people are forced to leave their homes, let’s be prepared to do our best to allow them freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom to live in dignity.  

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