Protecting “water refugees” : an examination of alternative frameworks for protecting those displaced by water scarcity, water policy, and water management



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The increasing frequency and/or severity of climate-related disasters has pushed “environmental refugees” onto center stage, capturing headlines the world over. Although the urgency implied by the “refugee” terminology is apt, the legal reality is that few “environmental refugees” can enjoy the protections of refugee law—a system of law that was created in the post-World War II era to respond to the ongoing needs of Jews displaced during the War and whose stringent requirements reflect the particular historical moment of its creation. Despite evolutions in other areas, refugee law does not typically provide recourse for environmental harms. By contrast, human rights law, at both the international and domestic levels, has continued to evolve to recognize environmental and social environmental rights; for example, the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2010 recognized a human right to water. Issues related to water scarcity or water (mis)management may already be causing affected individuals to leave their homes, and concerns about water availability in the near future necessitate the development of legal tools for protecting these populations. This paper draws on human rights law, as it exists in the international system and as applied in Colombia, to create a framework that may provide greater protection for so-called “water refugees,” given the increasing salience of displacements related to water, the lack of movement in refugee law regarding environmental displacements, and the promise of social and economic rights discourse.