In 2014, 19.3 million people were forced to leave their houses and were displaced within their countries due mostly to floods and storms but also to earthquakes and volcano eruptions—almost twice as many as those newly displaced by violent conflicts. Evidence shows that climate change is leading to human mobility and will continue to do so. But in what ways?
The availability of natural resources has always been a factor in the decision to migrate. Natural resources are unevenly distributed, and some places become unsuitable for maintaining a livelihood. Climate change is exacerbating the slow processes of environmental degradation, such as desertification, sea level rise, and salinization. At the same time, extreme weather events, such as cyclones, floods, and droughts have become more severe and frequent.
It is important to note that movements of people in the context of environmental degradation and climate change are occurring mostly within countries, just like migration in general. Of those who do cross a border, most remain within their region. Thus, there will be no “waves” of environmental migrants or “climate refugees,” as they are often mistakenly called by media. (The environment or climate change is not included in the protection of refugees in international law, which is why the term is not used in academia or by international organizations.) It is a predominantly domestic or regional issue.
Migration in general – for work, education, or family reunification – can help to adapt to climate change as it can help decrease vulnerability. For instance, migrants can send money to their families and communities, providing additional income and, in some cases, a shock-absorbing or risk-spreading mechanism. They can bring new skills, ideas, and knowledge of how to better adapt to climate change, including techniques for improving building and farming. Institutions are only starting to recognize that human mobility is not necessarily something “bad” that needs to be avoided.
More extreme and frequent droughts in East Africa have led pastoralists to search for new pastures for grazing. This has in some cases led to tensions with the local population over water and other scarce resources, such as land. Countries such as Kenya have encouraged the migration of pastoralists to the cities for work, which, however, has ended their traditional lifestyle and source of income.
As resources become scarcer, competition between users intensifies. Places where serious competition is likely to develop include regions that attract agricultural migrants. In West Africa, policies are being discussed to tackle this problem. These include decentralization, clarifying customary and statutory tenure systems, and encouraging debate at local, national, and sub-regional levels. Several governments already support a number of initiatives related to land tenure and access to resources. For instance, Senegal has mapped all the available land and designated 1/3 of it to be given to migrants who would use the land for small and medium entrepreneurial activities.
In the context of natural disasters, human security is of utmost importance. Evacuations are often needed to save lives. The poor are most at risk of being displaced due to storms and floods. Once in temporary shelters, they tend to be even more vulnerable. Reducing the risks of displacement and increasing the resilience of communities is of utmost importance.
Environmental migration is a reality, not a future scenario. Increased vulnerability, due to both fast- and slow-onset events, is threatening livelihoods around the globe, in both developed and developing countries. Where the capacity to respond to natural hazards is limited, including through migration, increasing instability through the exposure of vulnerable groups to tensions over scarce resources creates a snowball effect. The time to act is now, as the cost for responding to humanitarian crises created by large displacements will be much higher. Although environmental migration is not a crisis, it is becoming an increasing trend, and could lead to structural inequality—an issue that needs to be addressed.
Barbara Bendandi co-authored this article. She works as a migration and environment policy officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). She is in charge of the West Africa initiative. She previously worked for international organizations in the field of environmental conservation (UNCCD and IUCN) and advised the Italian government as an environmental expert for the G8/G20 Office.