Water, Climate, Conflict, and Migration: Coping with One Billion People on the Move by 2050

Water, Climate, Conflict, and Migration: Coping with One Billion People on the Move by 2050

By Nidhi Nagabhatla

Do migrants willingly choose to flee their homes, or is migration the only option available?

There is no clear, one-size-fits-all explanation for a decision to migrate — a choice that will be made today by many people worldwide, and by an ever-rising number in years to come due to a lack of access to water, climate disasters, a health crisis, and other problems.

Data is scarce on the multiple causes, or “push factors”, limiting our understanding of migration. What we can say, though, is that context is everything.

United Nations University researchers and others far beyond have been looking for direct and indirect links between migration and the water crisis, which has different faces — unsafe water in many places, and chronic flooding or drought in other places.

The challenge is separating those push factors from the social, economic, and political conditions that contribute to the multi-dimensional realities of vulnerable migrant populations — all of them simply striving for dignity, safety, stability, and sustainably in their lives.

A new report, Water and Migration: A Global Overview, from the UNU Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, offers insights into water and migration interlinkages, and suggests how to tackle existing gaps and needs.

The report’s information can be understood easily by stakeholders and proposes ideas for better informed migration-related policymaking. This includes a three-dimensional framework applicable by scholars and planners at multiple scales and in various settings.

The report also describes some discomforting patterns and trends, among them:

  • By 2050, a combination of water and climate-driven problems and conflicts will force 1 billion people to migrate, not by choice, but as their only option.
  • Links to the climate change and water crises are becoming more evident in a dominant trend — rural-urban migration.
  • There is a severe lack of quantitative information and understanding regarding direct, and indirect, water and climate-related drivers of migration, limiting effective management options at local, national, regional, and global scales.
  • Global agreements, institutions, and policies on migration are concerned mostly with response mechanisms; a balanced approach that addresses water, climate, and other environmental drivers of migration is needed.
  • Unregulated migration can lead to rapid, unplanned, and unsustainable settlements and urbanisation, causing pressure on water demand and increasing the health risks and burdens for migrants, as well as hosting states and communities.
  • Migration should be formally recognised as an adaptation strategy for water and climate crises; while it is viewed as a “problem”, in fact it forms part of a “solution”.
  • Migration reflects the systemic inequalities and social justice issues pertaining to water rights and climate change adaptation; lack of access to water, bad water quality, and a lack of support for those impacted by extreme water-related situations constitute barriers to a sustainable future for humankind.

Case studies in the report provide concrete examples of the migration consequences in water- and climate-troubled situations, including:

  • the shrinking of Lake Chad in Africa, and the Aral Sea in Central Asia;
  • the saga of Honduran refugees;
  • the rapid urbanisation of the Nile Delta; and
  • the plight of island nations facing both rising seas and more frequent, more intense extreme weather events; in addition, the added health burdens imposed on people and communities by water pollution and contamination create vicious cycles of poverty, inequality, and forced mobility

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not include an explicit migration target, mitigation of migration should be considered in the context of SDGs that aim to strengthen capacities related to water, gender, climate, and institutions. These issues resonate even as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recent news stories have chronicled the plight of desperate migrant workers trapped in the COVID-19 crisis in India, and of displaced people in refugee camps where social distancing is unachievable, as is access to soap and water, the most basic preventive measure against the disease.

Add to that the stigma, discrimination, and xenophobia endured by migrants that continue to rise during the pandemic.

Even at this moment, with the world fixated on the pandemic, we cannot afford to put migration’s long-term causes on the back burner.

While the cost of responses may cause concerns, the cost of no decisions will certainly surpass that. There may be no clear, simple solution but having up-to-date evidence and data will surely help.

On World Environment Day (5 June), we were all encouraged to consider human interdependencies with nature.

Let us also acknowledge that water and climate-related disasters, ecological degradation, and other environmental burdens cause economic, health, and well-being disparities for migrants and populations living in vulnerable settings.


This article was first published by Inter Press Service News.
Cover photo by International Organization for Migration / Sibylle Desjardins

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