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Worldwatch report points to new class of `environmental refugees'. Desertification, disasters, and toxic contamination drive people from home

Haitian boat people, former residents of Chernobyl, and the hungering nomads of drought-riddled Africa: worlds apart, they share a common fate. Though not officially recognized as such by governments and international organizations, people fleeing environmental degradation constitute the largest category of refugees, contends a report released over the weekend by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

The conventional notion of refugees as those seeking asylum from political, racial, or religious persecution leaves out this new and growing class of displaced persons, says Jodi L. Jacobson, author of the report.

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The forces driving the formation of this new class, the report says, are perhaps most nettlesome in the third world and are familiar:

Land degradation. A survey by the United Nations Environment Program estimates that a total of 4.5 billion hectares around the world - 35 percent of the Earth's land surface - are in various stages of desertification. ``These areas are home to more than 850 million people, many of whom are at risk of having their homes and livelihoods foreclosed by land degradation,'' the report says. Hardest hit are areas in the developing world, where farmers are forced to abandon unusable cropland in one area to plant in another area which is only marginally better. And increasingly, the ``better'' areas are disappearing, too fragile to sustain agriculture for more than a few years. Farm families must abandon the land for city life.

Unnatural disasters. Defined as ``normal events whose effects are exacerbated by human activities,'' these include avalanches, cyclones, earthquakes, and floods. Lumbering and mining industries have altered drainage patterns, making the course of storm runoff unpredictable. Overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices have decreased the soil's ability to absorb water. Deforestation of the hills that surround cities in the developing world has led to an increasing number of mud slides in urban shantytowns.

Toxic and nuclear contamination. ``Global production of organic chemicals alone increased from about 1 million tons a year in the '30s to about 250 million tons in 1985 and is now doubling every seven or eight years,'' the report says. And few countries, until recently, have had laws regulating the toxic wastes generated along the way. Poorly conceived disposal strategies have left communities in many areas of the world exposed to dangerous contaminants for years, before the communities are found to be uninhabitable. In addition, the report implies that the threat of nuclear contamination is nearly as awesome.

Expected ocean rising because of global warming. The amount of any rise resulting from melting of polar ice caps, or expansion of oceans because of the warming of sea water is uncertain. Still, the report says that ``a one-meter rise in ocean levels worldwide, for example, may result in the creation of 50 million environmental refugees from various countries - more than triple the number in all recognized refugee categories today.''