Extreme water events affecting water for drinking, cooking, washing and agriculture drive migration all over the world. Earlier this year, cyclone Eloise battered Mozambique, displacing 100,000 to 400,000 people and weakening the country’s infrastructure. People displaced by the storm were in need of food, hygiene kits and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Addressing water-driven migration will require research that crosses borders and research boundaries. As climate change continues to cause serious displacement and socio-political upheaval, governments must take action to minimize the effects on people vulnerable to migration.
The stakes of water-driven migration
Water-driven migration is a crucial challenge for people living in vulnerable and unstable regions. Water stress acts as a direct or indirect driver of conflict and migration. As water and climate extremes become worse, more people will face water crises and be forced to migrate.
For instance, take the famous case of the Aral Sea that shrank to 9,830 square kilometres in 2017 from 55,700 square kilometres in the 1970s. More than 100,000 people migrated due to collapse of agriculture, fisheries, tourism and increased illnesses such as tuberculosis and diarrhea.
Countries that have committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals could address water-driven migration through SDG 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions). Policy can be aligned with SDG 16 along a seven-point strategy:
Understand how water crises influence migration: Causality is important in addressing migration. Land, water and human security issues could serve as a base for outlining a preventative outlook for new and emerging migration pathways.
Integrate diverse perspectives in water migration assessments: Water co-operation treaties must integrate under-represented, marginalized and racialized migrant voices. The United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health has developed an approach to aggregate the causes and consequences of water-driven migration. This framework can help policy-makers interpret migration in diverse socio-ecological, socio-economic, and socio-political settings.
Assess water, migration and development practices through participatory, bottom-up and interdisciplinary approaches: Research should be participatory, applicable between disciplines and socially inclusive to complement scientific, descriptive methods. Nuanced facts of the diverse influences that shape migration can provide understanding to build resilience among vulnerable populations.
Manage data, information and knowledge: Researchers need updated data to examine how water crises are linked with human migration. To close the gaps, the UN has pointed to the need to improve capacity for data analysis within and between countries. Also, there must be stronger co-ordination at the state, regional and international levels to share best practices.
Policy-makers must prepare for the consequences of water crises by adopting improvements that address the concerns of those vulnerable to migration. The seven-point strategy calls for policy-makers to use strategic and integrated approaches between disciplines. Research that maps causes, risks and impacts at the local, regional and global levels can strengthen water migration policies.
When the rains never arrived in the East African nation of Somalia in 2016, nor in 2017, hundreds of thousands of rural residents were forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods due to one of the most severe droughts in decades. Then, in 2019, from September to December, heavy rains led to severe flooding there, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in rural areas and towns in the districts of Belet Weyne, Baardheere and Berdale.
These climate migrants traversed barren and dusty landscapes, or traveled through torrential rains, in search of food and shelter. Many ended up in refugee camps in urban areas such as Badbaado, a sea of makeshift tents on the outskirts of Mogadishu that is now home to tens of thousands of internally displaced persons.
The challenges they face are profound, says Ben Mbaura, national emergency response and disaster risk reduction coordinator at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), including inter clan conflict, poor sanitation, limited education and insufficient access to food. On top of that, many “do not have the necessary skills to match labor market needs, which also results in high levels of unemployment and exclusion,” Mbaura notes.
The response to internal displacement like this has long been to provide emergency or short-term assistance. In recent years, however, with so many internally displaced persons living in protracted displacement, humanitarian organizations have increasingly recognized the need to empower them to move toward greater self-reliance. As a result, in 2016 the U.N. and the government of Somalia created the Durable Solutions Initiative (DSI) as a way to introduce long-term solutions for internally displaced persons in Somalia. The DSI gives these people a voice in decision-making processes that shape their future — and offers a model for other cities that are, or soon will be, in similar circumstances.
Every year, millions of people around the world are forced to abandon their lands, livelihoods and communities due to the effects of climate change. And the rate of climate-induced migration is increasing — with most taking place in the form of rural-urban migration within countries.
According to a recent World Bank report, “internal climate migrants” could number more than 143 million by 2050, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia. If the past is any indication, most will be forced from their homes by extreme weather events. Others will move from rural areas to cities due to slow-onset climate-related events, such as desertification.
Humanitarian experts predict that the current trajectory of climate change will displace millions of people in the Global South. Source: Kanta et al. 2018. Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.
Pablo Escribano, a specialist on migration and climate change in Latin America for the IOM, says this migration will create “urban hot spots” where displaced persons converge in search of shelter, food and jobs.
Climate migrants who arrive in cities are likely to move to informal settlements, and many of these hot spots will occur in rapidly expanding cities in low- and middle-income countries with weak governance and limited capacities to provide social services and infrastructure.
“In Asia, recent estimates of the increase in sea-level rise have strong implications for cities like Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka,” Escribano says.
In Latin America, he says, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, La Paz and Mexico City will experience migration pressure from sea-level rise, melting glaciers and other climate-change effects. “Fast-growing cities in Africa, such as Lagos, Luanda and Kinshasa are also considered to be city hot spots,” he adds.
Urban development expert Robert Muggah has dubbed these urban settings as “fragile cities.” As the co-founder and research and innovation director of the think tank Igarapé Institute in Brazil, Muggah developed 11 indicators that determine urban fragility, including crime, inequality, lack of access to services and climate change threats.
Ani Dasgupta, global director for the Ross Center for Sustainable Cities at the World Resources Institute (WRI), says fast-growing cities face multiple threats that increase the vulnerability of new arrivals.
“As cities expand, many municipal governments are overburdened. They are not able to keep up with increasing demand for basic services, like housing, jobs, electricity and transport,” he says. “The climate crisis is an additional challenge on top of this. Flooding, heat waves, water shortages and more powerful storms tend to affect new migrants and already vulnerable populations most severely.”
Move Toward Self-Reliance
The goal of the DSI is to strengthen the ability of government at all levels — local, state and federal — to help internally displaced persons integrate into society. It has mobilized funding from donors such as the World Bank, U.N. agencies and the Peacebuilding Fund (the U.N.’s financial resource for supporting peace in areas experiencing or at risk of conflict) to support initiatives that allow internally displaced persons to present their ideas for community infrastructure projects along with strategies to become self-reliant.
Teresa Del Ministro, the DSI coordinator for Somalia, says the DSI is a response to a growing global awareness of the limitations of traditional humanitarian approaches to deal effectively with internally displaced persons. “With that trend increasing worldwide, it appeared that multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed at all levels,” she says.
The DSI is considered particularly innovative because it lets internally displaced persons articulate the kinds of solutions they need to move toward self-reliance.
“A participatory, locally owned approach is one of the programming principles for the DSI,” says Isabelle Peter, the DSI’s coordination officer.
One example is the Midnimo I project supported by the Peacebuilding Fund with the IOM and UN-Habitat as partners.
With support from Midnimo I (“midnomo” means “unity” in Somali), climate migrants and other displaced persons in southern and central Somalia met with representatives of their host communities, along with city and national government officials, to develop creative solutions to the many challenges they face. Among other things, the initiative sought to help communities define and drive their own recovery — most prominently through community action plans (CAPs), documents that lay out local priorities for community-driven recovery.
As part of Midnimo I, the IOM trained Somali government representatives to engage displaced persons in visioning exercises to help them articulate their short-term needs and present ideas on strategies to move toward greater self-reliance.
Midnimo I was implemented in the cities of Kismayo and Baidoa, home to more than 450,000 internally displaced persons.
“Together they would come up with priorities for infrastructure investments or other types of investments. If a project didn’t have funding for these priorities, the government would convene other actors and ask for their support,” says Del Ministro.
According to an evaluation report by the IOM, the Midnimo I project created short-term employment opportunities, led to the construction of community infrastructure projects and contributed to the establishment of a land commission and to improved relations between authorities and displaced communities. Nearly 350,000 people directly benefited from the Midnimo I project as a result of constructing or upgrading community-prioritized schools, hospitals, water sources, police stations, prisons, airports and more, according to the IOM’s Mbaura.
The DSI in Ethiopia
The DSI also has been implemented in Ethiopia, where a drought that began in 2015 left millions dependent upon emergency food aid. The government of Ethiopia, with support from U.N. agencies, governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organizations, launched its own DSI in December 2019. As in Somalia, the focus is on long-term self-reliance.
“The scale of the displacement surprised many in the international community, and there was recognition that collectively we needed to support Ethiopia,” says Hélène Harroff Atrafi, the DSI coordinator in the U.N. Resident Coordinator’s Office. “In doing so, we looked at international good practices, including in neighboring Somalia.”
At this point, the governance structure for the DSI is being established with the government of Ethiopia in the lead. “We have agreed on the vision forward, we have brought together all of the partners who want to work together. Now the operational rollout must begin,” says Atrafi.
In the Somali region, one of 10 regions of Ethiopia, the DSI is now at the stage of detailing the options that internally displaced families have: urban and rural relocation, return to the location of origin, and potential integration in the settlements where the displaced individuals currently reside.
According to the World Bank report “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” the number of climate migrants in Ethiopia could close to triple by 2050, with Addis Ababa set to become an urban hot spot for climate induced migration. Smaller cities, such as Jigjiga and Deri Dawa, are also expected to receive increasing waves of climate migrants.
Around the world, fragile city governments can partner with international humanitarian organizations, NGOs, research institutions, the private sector, U.N. agencies and other city governments to strengthen their capacities to tackle challenges at the intersection of urbanization, climate and migration.
For the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), a think tank based in Geneva, multi-stakeholder partnerships play a crucial role in gathering information about internally displaced persons.
“We start with the people affected — internally displaced persons and host communities — and from there, we build up the agenda, collaborating with national governments, U.N. agencies, NGOs, academia and research centers,” says Pablo Ferrández, a research associate with the IDMC.
Andrew Fuys, senior director for global migration at the nonprofit Church World Service, says that one of the priorities for research is to identify how the risks climate migrants face are similar to, or differ from, those of other internally displaced persons in cities so that organizations can provide the appropriate services for climate migrants.
This article is part of a United Nations University Migration Network series that explores the interrelations and acute challenges of migration, climate change, and COVID-19. As a build-up to International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020, the series examines these connections at local and global levels, highlights impacts on migrants, and provides evidence-based insights for United Nations member states, governments, and policymakers.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a stark image of what a world looks like when health is threatened on a global scale. Life as we once knew it has come to a standstill. When we do overcome this pandemic, however, the health and well-being impacts of climate change, will continue. The 2020 Lancet Countdown report published earlier this month shows how climate change is leading to immediate, profound, and worsening health impacts across the world. Bringing together 120 scientists from various research fields, and covering 43 global indicators, the report reveals how no country is immune, but also how some populations (such as people on the move) will suffer more than others.
I have been part of the Lancet Countdown since its very beginning and I currently work with the sub-working group focusing on human migration in a warming world. We estimate that, based on current population data, 145 million people will be exposed to potential inundation with global mean sea-level rise of one metre. The amount of people exposed jumps to 565 million with a five-metre sea-level rise scenario.
Unless we act now, we will be able to observe how more and more vulnerable people face further disruptions to their livelihoods and lives. We do not have the luxury of tackling one crisis at a time. The health harms of climate change are compounding the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Extreme weather events and climatic changes are displacing people at the same time as the pandemic. Adding to this, both climate change and COVID-19 exacerbate existing social inequalities within and between countries. We cannot afford to focus attention only on the COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of climate action.
A globally coordinated effort tackling COVID-19 and climate change will also mean a triple win: better public health, a more sustainable economy, and environmental protection. Unless the global COVID-19 recovery is aligned with the response to climate change, we will fail to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals. Taking action to address climate change offers a way to protect the health and well-being of vulnerable people on the move now and in the future.
People on the move during the pandemic
It is still too early to get a good picture of how the pandemic has impacted people on the move, whether displaced in their own countries or seeking refuge elsewhere. That said, in our recently published article we give an overview of what we do know. We know that people seeking work in the cites, after being unable to sustain themselves through natural resource-based livelihoods (such as fishing and farming), often settle down in slums upon their arrival. In these informal settlements, migrants often reside in overcrowded spaces while struggling with fragile healthcare systems and lacking basic infrastructure such as access to water and sanitation.
About a billion people around the world, including approximately 30–50% of the urban population in the global South, live in slums. This is also where many internally displaced people end up. Imposing lockdowns in these areas can leave millions of people stranded without livelihood opportunities or food. We also know that migrants sometimes are not entitled to support services available to other citizens, and conflict-traumatised refugee populations often do not trust or seek help from the official authorities when feeling unwell.
Fear among refugees in regards to COVID-19 is also spreading due to misinformation. For example, one Rohingya refugee in the world’s largest refugee camp located in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh stated that ‘If anyone gets infected, the authority has to kill her/him. Because if (s)he stays alive, the virus will transfer to another person’s body.’ In this way, fear and stigma among the Rohingya refugees result in people avoiding to seek care as well as infected people being denied treatment.
The year 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important that we remember this brutal lesson, but also that the pandemic represents a new beginning. People on the move must be safeguarded throughout the pandemic as well as after. We must unite together in these efforts and refuse to let ultra-vulnerable people be pushed aside. We need to pay more attention to human rights violations, not simply those forcing people to flee, but also those that follow in the footsteps of people on the move — whether it is through the denial of basic health services, water, food, and sanitation, or the intensified justification of hostile treatment and removal of asylum seekers.
It is more important than ever that we ensure that people do not end up in situations where their health and safety are not guaranteed. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us it is that the risk to one person’s well-being can be a slippery slope towards putting us all at risk. The recommendations long made by human rights and sustainable living frameworks would have reduced the spread of this deadly virus. Ensuing that we ‘build back better’, and create a more sustainable future for people on the move, will benefit us all!
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.
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.
By David Durand-Delacre, Carol Farbotko, Christiane Fröhlich, Ingrid Boas
Predictions of mass climate migration make for attention-grabbing headlines. For more than two decades, commentators have predicted “waves” and “rising tides” of people forced to move by climate change. Recently, a think-tank report warned the climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people by 2050. Some commentators now even argue that, as the New York Times noted in a recent headline “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun”, and that the climate refugees we’ve been warned about are, in fact, already here.
These alarming statements are often well-intentioned. Their aim is to raise awareness of the plight of people vulnerable to climate change and motivate humanitarian action on their behalf. But such headlines aren’t always accurate – and rarely achieve their intended effect.
Our main concern is that alarming headlines about mass climate migrations risk leading to more walls, not fewer. Indeed, many on the right and far right are now setting aside their climate denialism and linking climate action to ideas of territory and ethnic purity. In this context of growing climate nationalism, even the most well-intentioned narratives risk feeding fear-based stories of invasion when they present climate migration as unprecedented and massive, urgent and destabilising.
We do not deny that climate change influences migration. We cannot ignore the damage done to communities around the world by rising sea levels, worsening droughts and catastrophic forest fires. These raise new and serious challenges we must contend with. Yet the above narratives are misleading and damaging, when the concept of human mobility requires a deeper and more nuanced approach. It’s important we take these harsh realities seriously but avoid being too alarmist or seeing everything as being determined by the climate.
In general, we are concerned by the inaccurate portrayal of migration. People have always moved under the combined influences of changing environments, economies and sociopolitical dynamics. Climate migration is neither new nor extraordinary. It is not even that different from other forms of migration – climate migrants still tend to move to places they know or have connections to through their social networks.
These are key aspects of the idea of “climate mobilities”, which we developed in a Nature Climate Change commentary with 31 co-authors including anthropologists, geographers and political scientists. We point to how mobility in the context of climate change is highly diverse – what the vast body of empirical research on the subject has shown is far different from the image of mass movements of people moving abroad.
Instead, we see highly varied and fragmented climate-related journeys. For instance, climate mobility can take the form of short-term, short-distance movements, rural-to-urban migration, or voluntary immobility. Contrary to the alarmist rhetoric of mass international migration, most movements do not involve crossing a border. For instance a million Somalians were internally displaced by a drought in 2016-17 – this dwarfs the numbers involved in any international climate migration.
Fully understanding climate mobilities requires a broader evidence base than is typically used. Many problematic narratives rely mainly on quantitative modelling, reading peoples’ experiences only through that lens. More research collaboration with the social sciences and humanities would improve our understanding, as these disciplines can provide a sensitivity to context that models alone will never achieve.
Affected people are telling their own stories
As we turn to a more diverse set of perspectives, affected people must themselves be included. They are already telling their own stories, in their own words. It’s crucial that we listen, especially when they contradict our research findings and personal intuitions. Listening to Pacific Islanders, for example, tells us that easy tales of “sinking islands” aren’t the whole story. Activists throughout the region have distilled their message of themselves as powerful actors in the fight for climate justice (and against climate migration) in the catchcry: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.
Halfway across the world, interviews with young farmers in Senegal living in precarious situations found that, while climate change does threaten their livelihoods, it is not their key concern, and they do not see migration as a problem. They want stronger local government, more local economic opportunities and the choice to migrate regardless of cause, if it can mean a better life for them and their families.
Finally, research and reporting on climate migration needs to better consider destination areas. Policymakers throughout the global north are notoriously incapable and reluctant to take the complex realities of migration into account, to the point of sometimes disregarding the research they fund. Instead they justify anti-immigration policies such as the UK’s “hostile environment” by presenting the interests and desires of “native” populations as competing with those of new arrivals.
These narratives of inevitable economic and cultural conflict need to be challenged. For this, we can draw on a large body of work that shows migrants aren’t all rich and successful, or poor and excluded, and that successful projects take these differences into account, listen to migrants themselves and promote open dialogue with established populations.
Building an open, diverse, and accepting society in times of crisis and change is a difficult task. We should take care not to make it harder by promoting fear-based stories of climate migration.
By Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson, Celia McMichael, Ilan Kelman, Shouro Dasgupta
An article in 2011 shocked many by suggesting that up to 187 million people could be forced to leave their homes as a result of two metres of sea level rise by 2100. Almost a decade on, some of the latest estimates suggest that as many as 630 million people may live on land below projected annual flood levels by the end of the century.
The idea that rising seas will force millions to move, unleashing a refugee crisis like no other, has now become commonplace. It’s a narrative that the media are fond of, but that does not mean it is based on evidence.
The potential scale of sea level rise is becoming clearer, but this does not necessarily translate into population movements. Everything we have learned so far suggests that decisions to migrate are far more complex than a simple flight response.
In our new review article, we looked at 33 different studies that have estimated how sea level rise will affect migration patterns. Reliable estimates are important to help support vulnerable populations, but there is deep uncertainty around the amount of people who will be exposed to rising seas, and how they will respond.
We looked carefully at the methods and data sets of these studies to try and tease out uncertainties. One issue plaguing their estimates is assumptions about the number of people who will be living in vulnerable low-lying areas in the future.
Most of the studies we reviewed did note that the connections between migration and sea level rise are incredibly complex. Every person directly affected isn’t guaranteed to move away as a result. People may be just as likely to try and protect their homes against the water, by building sea walls or elevating their houses.
It’s impossible to predict how each person will respond, and there are countless reasons why someone might choose to stay in the place they call home rather than move or seek shelter elsewhere. Those who may be forced to migrate and resettle due to climate change receive far more attention than those left behind. These so-called “trapped” populations can be just as vulnerable as those on the move, if not more so.
Research suggests that the decision to stay or leave will have as much to do with emotional and social pressures as financial or practical reasons. People may feel afraid or find it unbearable to leave, while others lack the necessary support. Many may feel obliged to stay due to binding social ties and reponsibilities.
How the health and wellbeing of those staying behind will be affected by rising seas is poorly investigated. More research is needed to understand the realities of staying put, for those who choose to stay and those who are unable to leave.
Where do we go from here?
Research on sea level rise and migration has often tried to obtain global estimates of those likely to be affected. These are useful for drawing attention to the potential scale of future impacts, but they lack local insights that could help make the picture clearer for different areas.
Rising sea levels are just one of the many ways climate change is remaking our world. Understanding how sea level rise interacts with other environmental changes, such as increased temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will be important, but this stretches the ability to predict exact migration numbers.
Despite all the unknowns, we do know that coastal changes wrought by climate change will be significant, and they require action now. That means devising measures to prevent or reduce inundation, figuring out how to live with the water, and planning for successful ways to migrate and resettle. Evaluating options, developing scenarios, and making decisions around this must happen now, rather than waiting for the issue to become more urgent.
It is just as important to avoid repeating myths around climate change triggering vast flows of people from the so-called “Global South” seeking refuge in the so-called “Global North”. We do know that people will not inevitably flee across borders in a warming world. Where migration does happen, movements within countries are often neglected on the likely flawed assumption that most migrants are crossing borders.
The narratives create unnecessary concern while shifting focus away from what really matters – helping vulnerable people. Not only do these myths reproduce xenophobic and outdated colonial power relations based on unfounded arguments, but they also create unnecessary fear and hostile environments for migrant populations around the world.
This article was originally posted on The Conversation.
German scientists have an answer to the great question of species survival: can animals adapt to climate change? The answer, based on close analysis of 10,000 studies, is a simple one. They may be able to adapt, but not fast enough.
The question is a serious one. Earth is home to many millions of species that have evolved – and adapted or gone extinct – with successive dramatic shifts in climate over the last 500 million years.
The difference is that climate is now changing at a rate far faster than any previous episode. So can those animals that cannot migrate to cooler climates adjust to changing conditions?
“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence”
A team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and more than 60 colleagues from around the world report in the journal Nature Communications that they examined whether creatures could change either their physiology, size or behaviour to accommodate a rise in temperature accompanied by a change in the timing of the seasons. Biologists call this kind of response “phenotypic change.”
Questions like these are not easily answered. To be sure, the biologists needed reliable local records of temperatures across a number of locations. Then they needed sure information about the timing of migration, reproduction, hibernation and other big events in the lives of their subjects over a number of years.
And then they needed to find case studies where data had been collected over many generations in one population of creatures in one space.
And having found changes in the traits of their selected creatures, the biologists had to work out whether such changes led to higher levels of survival, or more offspring. They found reliable information about 17 species in 13 countries.
In the end, most of their data came from studies of birds, among them common and abundant species such as the great titParus major, the common magpie Pica pica or the European pied flycatcherFicedula hypoleuca.
“Even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence,” said Alexandre Courtiol of the Leibniz Institute. And the data available apply to species that are known to cope relatively well with changing conditions.
“Adaptive responses among rare or endangered species remain to be analysed,” said his colleague and co-author Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, a Liebniz ecologist. “We fear that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic.”
In a recent research project supported by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and AXA Research Fund, I focused on the main two systems of law in the Pacific – state or national legislation and traditional, customary law – and how the differences between the two could create legal risks when implementing international law associated with climate change, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement. The final policy report, launched in November 2017 at COP23 in Bonn, Germany, produced a set of seven concrete recommendations for policy makers and negotiators when addressing migration and human rights in the context of climate change.
Some of the recommendations emphasise the need of an harmonisation between the two legal systems in the Pacific (state/national and traditional) so as to create a single coherent system that can fill in the gaps and help implement international law, such as Paris Agreement. Other recommendations express an acute need for the process of migration to be continuously recognised by the countries in the region and started to be addressed at both technical and political level.
However, there are two main conclusions of the research that are applicable on a larger scale, beyond the characteristics of one country or region in particular.
Today, based on a reciprocal cause-effect relationship, we can’t address environmental degradation – including climate change – without taking into account human rights and/or migration. This analysis applies to all environmental-degradation events and disasters, regardless of whether the process is slow (such as sea-level rise, salinization, etc.) or rapid (flooding, extreme storms, etc.). For example, the immediate consequence of a flood could be human-rights violations in the affected community – children could be unable from going to school (the right to education), elderly people may be unable to reach medical facilities (the right to health care), and so on.
Immediately after the human-rights violation (happening at state level due to its obligation to protect and ensure the access to different rights), decisions are usually made by families and individuals depending on the severity of the event: either to stay (adapt) or to flee (migrate). Research in my book Legal Protection of the Sinking Islands Refugees (2016) shows that almost 30% of the people worldwide decide to migrate, mostly due to the limited capacity of states to assist in the adaptation process.
The decision to migrate is not exclusively based on environmental reasoning. It can include limitations to human-rights access as well economic issues. Most importantly, migration may itself lead to human-rights violations, including the right to a clean and healthy environment and ultimately contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. This interlinked and interconnected view of environmental degradation, human rights and (forced) migration represents a change of paradigm, a concrete conceptualisation of the states’ duty to protect or common but differentiated responsibility application for both sending and receiving communities.
Reflected also in the decision of the households to migrate or adapt – or use of migration as an adaptive tool when affected by environmental degradation – this nexus enlarges any state’s immediate actions, including as the duty to rescue, to a medium- to long-term approach, which is much more complex.
Thinking and working regionally
Another core finding is that the regional approach, in general proves more effective when developing, initiating and eventually implementing a migration policy.
However, it is clear that the actual migration process at UN level has unfortunately become quite political and, moreover, parties are not eager to address climate-related mobility. Although the number of climate migrants is rising every year and there are no global policies to respond, member states are very reluctant to recognise climate change as a threat. While the Paris Agreement created a sense of political momentum, the actual process has lost its shine and interest of some parties, even as they all continue to face concrete migration struggles around the world.
However, there are previous regional experiences that proven to be more effective than global ones such as environmental (bi- and multi-lateral) agreements with a greater impact in domestic legislation and a better reflection of the priorities countries find to be important in those particular cases.
In general, regional documents have an important characteristic that is significantly lost in global agreements, conventions or any other legal forms, and that is represented by identity. Regions have common and distinctive cultural, social and even legal individualities. These spring from communities and define the countries in an idiosyncratic manner, and can include common historical ties, traditions, social structures or cultural and religious manifestations that are better preserved and protected at regional level than globally. In relation to the environment, regions do have specific approaches that are quite difficult to be conserved in global negotiations, but much easier at regional level, as it is very probable to be shared between countries and even define an entire region.
States not only have to address present migration humanitarian crises, but they also must regulate and enable future mobility impacts due to environmental-rights breaches.
Human mobility is a positive process that has taken place for more than 2,000 years, and because of significant environmental challenges and continuous presence of conflict, it will continue to increase in the future. States should not be surprised by the increasing number of migrants, but instead start regulating mobility taking into account environmental components with a strong rights-based approach, in a preventive mode to assure that basic rights are respected, including that to a clean environment, migrants rights, and human rights.