Human migration; an effective response to a changing climate?

Contributor: Dr Anna Haworth

Environmental factors have long had an impact on global migration flows as, historically, people tend to leave places with harsh or deteriorating conditions.  However, the scale of such flows, both internal and cross-border, is expected to rise as a result of a changing climate, with unprecedented impacts on lives and livelihoods. It remains a highly complex issue though. The distribution, onset and severity of climate impacts around the world will be uneven, as will people’s capacity to respond. In some instances, climate change is likely to make migration more probable, and in other situations, it will become less possible.

Human migration and the international response was the topic of conversation at a recent event organised by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). The presenters and panellists – a mixture of researchers, practitioners and decision-makers – discussed the latest evidence on the linkages between climate change, human migration and displacement, and the social, economic and cultural implications.

Firstly, it is important to stress that the distinction between human migration and displacement is a critical one: migration is an act of choice, whereas displacement is involuntary, most likely resulting from devastating shocks, such as extreme flood events. Prof. Dominic Kniveton from the University of Sussex usefully described the distinction as a continuum depicted on an ellipse, with displacement at the far left, proactive resettlement at the far right, and in the middle, seasonal or circular migration. Increasingly, migration is being viewed as a viable and effective adaptation strategy. This is a significant shift away from the perception of the migrant as a “victim”. The challenge is to move people away from the displacement scenario, through effective disaster risk reduction measures, including early warning systems.

Prof. Kniveton has been spearheading a research project in Bangladesh exploring migration in the context of climate variability and change. Bangladesh is a country uniquely exposed to climate risks associated with both too much water, due to sea level rise and flooding of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, and too little water, due to shifts in precipitation patterns.

Employing a mainly quantitative approach, drawing on life histories through household surveys, Kniveton and his team uncovered complex dynamics controlling migration patterns.  For people exposed to flooding, migration is frequently chosen as a proactive response. Furthermore, for those who had previously experienced climate-related hazards, including flooding and river bank erosion, migration becomes increasingly likely to be adopted as a coping mechanism.

Utilising data of population growth rates in different regions following stressful events, Prof. Kniveton estimates that by 2050, inland flooding, storm surges, river bank erosion and sea level rise may create between 16 and 26 million internal migrants in Bangladesh alone.

The Government of Bangladesh is internationally recognised internationally as being ahead of the game with respect to climate change adaptation, with numerous policies attaching importance to the issue. This was re-iterated by H.E. Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, High Commissioner for Bangladesh, “We recognise the value of migration in a development context.” However, Prof. Kniveton stressed that this was a developing field and presented a number of further policy recommendations for Bangladesh, including:

  • The country’s National Adaptation Programme of Action, disaster risk reduction strategies and Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP) should look at migration as an option rather than exclusively as a threat.
  • The Overseas Employment Policy should incorporate provision for facilitating international migration from climate change affected areas.
  • Migration should be incorporated as a climate change adaption tool in the country’s Five Year Plans and Ten years Perspective Plan.
  • Internal migrants from climate affected areas work mostly in the informal sector. Use of migration as a planned adaptation strategy can help them develop their skills to participate in the formal sector jobs within the country.

Venna Ravichandran, Senior Research Advisor at CDKN, highlighted a number of other important elements of the debate. The first was the need to pay more attention to gender-specific issues. Due to cultural issues, women are intrinsically tied to the land and therefore have limited mobility. In order to explore different choices and promote the most appropriate adaptation response, policy-makers need to understand psycho-social / environmental behaviour in more detail.

Secondly, Ms Ravichandran discussed the nexus between migration and urbanisation. In the majority of developing countries, migration patterns are increasingly from rural to urban areas, and this presents huge demand and pressure on infrastructure in cities. Furthermore, there is the significant threat that the migrants will be increasingly exposed to climate hazards (e.g. living in urban slums, potentially in areas prone to flooding) and this form of migration is mal-adaptation – in other words, the wrong response.

Migration is a highly politicised issue and currently, there is a legal vacuum for international migrants displaced due to climate change. Climate migrants have no legal standing in migration countries. As Ms Ravichandran stated, “Policy response needs to go beyond humanitarian issues, and encompass legal protection and social security.” This is challenging as there are, at present, limited financial instruments to facilitate this.

Finally, H.E. Mohamed Mijarul Quayes stated that the way to elevate the issue and get the attention of decision-makers was through “securitisation of the agenda”. In other words, the security and potential conflict implications of human migration are likely to make politicians take a greater interest in an issue that has been, up until now, largely a humanitarian one.

A video of the ODI event is available to view here

Dr Anna Haworth is a specialist in climate change risk assessment and management and is a Risk Advisor at climate change adaptation consultancy, Acclimatise. Anna has worked with numerous national and regional governments and some of the world’s largest companies, seeking to integrate climate change into their decision-making and risk management processes. She has worked with clients from a diverse range of sectors, including energy, oil and gas, environment, agriculture, fisheries, water resources and tourism. She has a strong scientific knowledge of past climate change and future projections, which she developed through her own academic research, having completed a PhD in 2009.

This article first appeared on the Acclimatise website and is republished here with permission. The original article can be accessed here.

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