Climate Justice and human rights for flood-affected people

By Lydia Darby On 10.08.2022 Climate change

The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance aims to improve the lives of communities on the frontlines of climate change in countries all over the world. We talk a lot about climate resilience, particularly resilience to floods. Today, let’s talk about climate justice. This is the fulfilment of human rights in the face of climate change. My name is Lydia and I’m the global programme officer for Practical Action in the Alliance. My recent visits to Senegal and Jordan have grounded this recently recognised human right to a safe, healthy, clean and sustainable environment in reality.

Climate change and environmental degradation have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights. In 2021 the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recognised that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right, which was confirmed by the UN General Assembly on the 28th July 2022.

The world faces a triple emergency of climate change, poverty and environmental degradation, including nature and biodiversity loss. The resolution recognises how the impact of this on the enjoyment of human rights everywhere. These problems are already having disastrous consequences for vulnerable people around the world, especially women, girls and other marginalised groups.

In resolution 48/13, the UNHRC called on States and partners around the world to work together to implement this newly recognised right. A second resolution (48/14) establishes a Special Rapporteur to focus on human rights impacts of climate change. “This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

This will help empower people to stand up for their rights. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd said, “Having a right to a healthy environment changes people’s perspective from ‘begging’ to demanding governments to act”.

The rights of flood affected people

Many of the people we work with face riverine and flash floods as well as storm surges and heavy rainfall. They live in complex, multi-hazard environments and are vulnerable to a range of climate-related threats including drought, heatwaves and storms. People in all of the communities where the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance work, from Bangladesh to Zimbabwe, Peru to the Philippines, face challenges to exercising their full human rights as a result of the changing climate. Often a lack of preparedness and pre-event investment means climate hazards become disasters, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and harm.

For example, Jordan is a small country in the Middle East which faces severe and unanticipated flash floods, often flowing from the mountains without warning. This nation has suffered several crises in recent years that has put flash flooding on the national agenda. For example, two devastating flood events took place in 2018, in October – where a school bus of children and teachers was swept into the Dead Sea – and November – where World Heritage Site Petra had nearly 4,000 tourists evacuated and 11 people killed because of a flash flood. This is against a backdrop of increasing water scarcity and heat waves.

The Dead Sea, Jordan, near the site where the devastating flash flood took place in October 2018. ©Lydia Darby – Practical Action, June 2022.


Shop keeper from Wadi Musa, the town where Petra is located, showing the level the flood waters reached during the flood in November 2018. This flood event affected the community’s rights to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as this family’s rights to a livelihood. ©Lydia Darby – Practical Action. June 2022.

Flooding is severely impacting the lives and rights of millions of people every year, starting with the most fundamental right of all: the right to life, liberty and security. Flood events like those in Jordan also adversely impacts the rights to health, education, water and sanitation, as well as food security, culture and people’s livelihoods.

The climate emergency is threatening the rights of people in every corner of the globe. From flooded schools in Senegal, businesses in Germany or farms in Bangladesh, the rights to education, health, water and sanitation as well as food security, culture and livelihoods are affected. And we are running out of time to limit the worst effects. As Chiara Liguori, Amnesty International’s Researcher and Advisor on Climate Justice said, “there will be no freedom or equality when the world we live in is scorched, sunken and toxic.”

Climate justice requires that climate action is consistent with human rights and reduces rather than exacerbates inequality. Already, countries like Jordan, who have contributed the least with respect to climate-changing carbon emissions, are suffering some of the greatest impacts. Within climate vulnerable countries it is the people most marginalised by poverty, age, gender or discrimination that are most likely to die because of floods and other hazards.

Whilst we welcome the new declaration, what needs to be done now?

  • International action to reduce global emissions to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees
  • Binding agreements to scale up adaptation, invest in resilience and to finance the loss and damage suffered by vulnerable communities.
  • Action must be taken to secure human rights and put local knowledge front and centre so the most vulnerable people can protect themselves and safeguard their human rights

Human rights must be safeguarded and this new declaration re-emphasises the need for protecting the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change. This is now not just a moral obligation, but a legal one.