Climate Refugees

Destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, 2013 (Photo by Henri Donati/Department for International Development, UK)

Destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines, 2013 (Photo by Henri Donati/Department for International Development, UK)

When I first met Leah Tejada, she described the storm in starkly personal terms: the strong winds tore through her family's village in northern Leyte, ripping the roof off their home and sending them to huddle in a nearby shelter. Soon, part of her family – along with millions of others – fled their battered homes for Manila.

It had already been a year after Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, when we first spoke, but her family was still recovering. We met in Los Angeles, where she works as a home caregiver. At the time, she was part of the extended community of Filipinos abroad sending food, money and medicine to loved ones affected by the storm.

"They are the survivors," said Tejada, of her family and neighbors. Many more, thousands across the region, were not so lucky.

Scientists call Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Visayas in November 2013, the strongest recorded storm ever to make landfall. It left a path of destruction in its wake. Tejada's family, from a town called Babatngon, was spared the worst of it. Leyte's capital, Tacloban, was hit directly by winds exceeding 300 kilometers per hour and a wall of water as high as 25 feet crashing into the city. Over 6,000 people were killed and more than 4 million displaced. The next year, with the region still trying to recover, Typhoon Ruby (or Hagupit) hit. Tejada's family home was again destroyed. The only thing that saved them, she said, were the root crops they had planted. That and the dried fish that her niece was able to transport from Manila with money she sent home. The rebuilding began again.

Leah Tejada, 63, is a caregiver based in Los Angeles. Her family's home has been destroyed multiple times on the north coast of Leyte from typhoons, but she still plans to return after retirement and help her family withstand climate change's affects in the coming years.

Leah Tejada, 63, is a caregiver based in Los Angeles. Her family's home has been destroyed multiple times on the north coast of Leyte from typhoons, but she still plans to return after retirement and help her family withstand climate change's affects in the coming years.

The fact that climate change is making storms more frequent and increasingly ferocious is not new. Scientists at the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been warning for years of the danger. And in the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has often taken a focused approach, such as noting in 2016 that climate change could be increasing record rains in the Gulf Coast by 40 percent. But the effect on migration – or forced displacement – is only starting to be fully understood.

For Filipinos, migration is a decades-old story – from the ilustrados and manongs to the nurses, musicians and shipping crews of the modern era. And it's shaped generations of us. Today, one in ten Filipinos work overseas, sending back billions of dollars in remittances, supporting extended families and propping up the economy. Most of our families have multiple members working abroad, making Skype calls and Facebook posts the digital ties to life's events back home.

But climate change could introduce something new. Whether the result of sudden, catastrophic weather that displaces villages and parts of cities or the steady, unrelenting march of sea level rise, climate change could force more people to flee a familiar home in search of livelihood elsewhere.


We have entered the era of a changing climate and all the uncertainty that it brings. Some of us will have to move, and some of those moves will be permanent.

Already, more and more people are on the move. In 2015, for example, over 16 million people were displaced throughout the Asia Pacific region, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Not all are due to climate change, of course. There are economic, cultural and political reasons, as well. But experts say climate change has the potential to exacerbate these more traditional "push" factors. Even more troubling, there are signs that climate change could make people fleeing harsh conditions more vulnerable to dangers like human trafficking and smuggling. In a 2017 report, the International Office of Migration found that these risks, along with gender-based violence, were "amplified" among survivors of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The story of displacement can be sudden or it can play out over years, away from the glare of media or the attention of humanitarian aid workers. In the end, it will be up to us, whether we live in the path of the next typhoon or sow our fields ahead of the next drought or have family who depend on the catch along the coast, to find a way to live and make a home in these new conditions.

Recently, I called up Leah Tejada to find out how her family was doing, nearly four years after Haiyan and three years after Ruby. She answered the phone in a whisper, careful not to wake the elderly patient who she was caring for at a home in the Los Angeles area.

Her family had returned to Babatngon, in northern Leyte. But there were signs of worry. Her brothers, who depend on farming and fishing, are starting to speak more frequently about the hotter temperatures. Plus, farmland is being converting to housing in a fast clip – an urgent phenomenon taking place across the country.

"Rice fields are filled with concrete," said Tejada, now 63. "There's no more food, there's no balance."

Still, her family is determined to stick it out. And Tejada said she has plans to join them in a couple of years when she retires. There are also signs of hope. One of her brothers is working with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on a project to foster the traditional mangrove forests in coastal waters. They were inspired by parts of Iloilo, where the mangroves, with their strong roots and extensive growth, were credited with saving parts of the coast from strong storms after Haiyan.

"They don't want to leave our place," said Tejada, of her family.

And they are fighting for it. For their own survival and that of their neighbors. As we said goodbye, she ended on a practical note.

"I'm always telling my brothers to plant root crops so they can survive," she said. "The root crop is what saved them from Yolanda."

We have entered the era of a changing climate and all the uncertainty that it brings. It presents great challenges, especially as we fight for our communities. Some of us will have to move, and some of those moves will be permanent. But Tejada's family also points to another solution: we could change and adapt, perhaps living differently than in the past. Fewer malls, fewer cars, fewer conveniences that demand cheap fuel that drives the climate toward ruin. More rice fields. More root crops. More sharing of limited resources.

All of it will be necessary, if we still have a chance, to call our own place home.


Dorian Merina

Dorian Merina

Dorian Merina is a writer and journalist currently based in Los Angeles. This is the final of a multipart series exploring climate change and the Filipino diaspora. Other articles address the future of the world’s oceans, food production and migration.


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