The Impact of Natural Disasters on Climate Change

From the Fall 2007 issue of Nexus.


 Hannah Entwisle '04
 Hannah Entwisle '04

Will climate change have an impact on the rights and entitlements of refugees and internally displaced persons, and our obligation to them under international law? Recent graduate Hannah Entwisle '04, who works at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is one of a growing number of lawyers and others trying to raise awareness about the protection needs of those forcibly displaced due to natural disasters. "The classic example," she says "is when a low-lying island nation is subsumed by rising sea levels leaving the inhabitants without a country. Then there are those who are displaced within their own countries after floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina as just one example."


Many scientists point to climate change as the cause of the growing number of natural disasters around the globe. Despite projections that indicate an alarming 4,650 disasters will occur between 2000-2009 as compared to 73 recorded one hundred years ago, no UN agency has assumed responsibility for assisting governments with the protection needs of the potentially increasing number of displaced persons due to these disasters. Yet, hundreds of thousands of families every year face losing loved ones, their homes, and livelihoods due to natural disasters. "So far, the specific protection needs of people displaced due to natural disasters have not been systematically addressed," says Entwisle. "Understandably, the current international legal focus has been on conflict situations and the challenges associated with forced displacement due to conflict."

Graduating from the U of T Faculty of Law in 2004, Entwisle went on to work briefly at the United Nations in Kenya on legal issues related to sexual exploitation and abuse by UN Peacekeepers. "I never wanted to follow the traditional path of a corporate lawyer," she says. "During law school I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to study with a number of talented professors and explore how various legal frameworks and tools can work together to address complex human rights and development issues," says Entwisle. "The International Human Rights Program was particularly useful in providing me with the opportunity to gain practical experience in the field of human rights and humanitarian work through internships and the clinic work."

Following the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004, Entwisle moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She helped coordinate international relief efforts to provide transitional shelter for internally displaced persons within Indonesia and Sri Lanka. One year later, Entwisle joined the UN Internal Displacement Division, and since July 2006 she has been working with the UNHCR to improve international humanitarian responses for internally displaced persons.

Through her work Entwisle has developed a passion for helping people who have lost everything as a result of natural disasters. But she says it is sometimes hard to generate enthusiasm for the issue given that political displacement is a more recognized phenomenon. At the same time, however, she notes that there seems to be a growing interest in the issue worldwide. The 2005 UN Humanitarian Reform Process has raised awareness of internally displaced citizens in both conflict and natural disaster situations. Entwisle hopes that her work will positively influence governmental and humanitarian policy-making.