The United Nations is using “big numbers and misleading statistics” to convince the world that 700 million people will be displaced in Africa by 2030 because of water scarcity, according to Danish Refugee Council Global Adviser and Senior Analyst Alexander Kjærum.
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Opinion: UN is wrong to say 700 million will be displaced by drought
By Alexander Kjærum // 23 February 2023
Environment & Natural ResourcesHumanitarian AidResearchUnited NationsWMO
Internally displaced people in Beletweyne, in the Hiraan region of Somalia,
wait to receive food and nonfood items donated by AMISOM troops. Photo by:
“UN predicts 700 million displaced in Africa by 2030 due to water scarcity”
— reads a headline from October 2022. The story behind the number tells a
concerning story about the aid sector’s use of big numbers and misleading
statistics to advance their agendas. In fact, the number has nothing to do
with water scarcity, Africa, or a timeline of 2030.
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The October headline was based on a recently released report by the United
Nations’ World Meteorological Organization, but it had also been used over
several years, including by the U.N. secretary general, several other U.N.
agencies, in particular the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and
UNICEF, and the World Bank and numerous NGOs.
The number gained momentum in 2022 as it was included in a draft public
version of the sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, despite the fact that it was clearly stated that the draft
should not be cited or quoted.
The number first appeared in a UNESCO report from 2009, which states that
between 24 million to 700 million could be displaced globally by
water-related factors. While the referencing in the UNESCO report is not
entirely clear, it appears that the source of the 700 million is a
Christian Aid report from 2007. This report states that up to 1
billion could be displaced by 2050 (not 2030), which includes 645 million
that would be displaced due to development projects “such as dams and
mines.” Combined with an estimated 50 million displaced by natural
disasters this becomes approximately 700 million. There is only very basic
math behind these numbers — e.g. the 645 million displaced due to
development projects is calculated by the assumption that 15 million are
displaced every year, multiplied by 43 years to reach 2050.
The mere fact that a flagship U.N. report cites a number from a document
which clearly says it should not be cited should raise immediate red flags.
In 2012, the 24 million to 700 million range is then referenced in a UNCCD
fact sheet, stating that: “With the existing climate change scenario,
almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water
stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in
Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will
displace between 24 million and 700 million people.”
This became the source for a number of future references, but in a
synthesized version where nuance and meaning get lost, it becomes “high
water stress is estimated to affect about 250 million people on the
[African] continent and displace up to 700 million individuals by 2030.“
This should be quite obviously wrong to most people for two reasons:
1) The number of displaced people from a hazard or disaster will always be
smaller than the ones who are exposed to that same hazard or disaster. Yet
in this scenario of 700 million people displaced, that would represent
almost three times as many as the 250 million people actually affected by
2) The 700 million figure would amount to almost half of Africa’s
population in 2030.
This example reveals several concerning points about the use of big numbers
in the humanitarian and development sector. First, when a number range is
provided, the highest number regularly ends up being the one that makes the
headlines. We see this in the World Bank Groundswell report for example,
where the headlines have also been that climate change could lead to 216
million migrants by 2050 without including the range of 44 million to 216
Second, the drive to promote big, concerning numbers seems to dilute common
sense. While 700 million displaced in the distant future of 2050 might have
made some sense in 2007, how can this figure be used in 2022 for a 2030
projection without looking into what the current status is?
Based on calculations on data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring
Center, 2.6 million people globally were displaced by drought between 2017
and 2021, so quite far from potentially accumulating to 700 million on the
African continent by 2030 as per the October 2022 headline. The loss of
common sense is related to the fact that people have a very hard time
understanding big numbers, which research confirms. When 700 million is
used and quoted without context it ends up meaning simply “many people” to
a majority of readers. If the quote had used the equally erroneous wording
“half of Africa’s population to be displaced by 2030,” I am sure many
readers and researchers would have questioned this prediction.
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Third, it reveals that many humanitarian and development organizations are
publishing big numbers without accurately checking their validity or
credibility; presumably more intent on gaining attention and funding for
their cause. It exposes the extreme big-number fetish in the sector, when
what is needed instead is to promote factual, qualitative knowledge about
the issues of concern.
This 700 million example reveals a concerning lack of review and fact-check
internally in many of the leading U.N. agencies and NGOs that continue to
publish and use this number. The mere fact that a flagship U.N. report
cites a number from a document which clearly says it should not be cited
should raise immediate red flags.
There is no good reason to always provide the biggest, worst-case scenario
number in any range provided in research. By constantly focusing on the
largest value in a range, or the most sensational, humanitarian and
development communications risk crying wolf and losing credibility among
the public, donors, and internal decision-makers.
In turn, as these groups are regularly fed numbers and predictions that are
very likely not to be true, they will lose faith in the evidence being
provided. This poses a significant risk to advancing more evidence- and
data-driven development and humanitarian action in a time when it is needed
To retain some credibility, humanitarian and development agencies should
start by focusing on promoting the most realistic scenario numbers. And
these numbers should always come with a clear explanation of the
methodology behind them and put them into context. Lastly, the sector
should focus less on numbers and more on describing the issues
qualitatively, which makes it easier for donors and decision-makers to act
Editor’s note: By the time of publication, WMO responded to the author’s
queries and have subsequently removed the reference to 700 million
displaced people in Africa due to water scarcity by 2030 from the “State of
the Climate in Africa 2021” report.
The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the
Danish Refugee Council.
The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's
About the author
Alexander Kjærum is a global advisor, senior analyst with the Danish
Refugee Council. He is leading the work on enhancing the use of data and
analysis for strategic planning, programming, and advocacy. He is also the
lead on use of predictive analytics and author on the flagship Global
Displacement Forecast report.
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