At home and in exile

We need to adequately plan for internal migration due to climate change

April 17, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

At the height of the Syrian and Rohingya crises, much of the world’s attention turned to forced displacement and refugees. Both exemplified the typical conditions under which people are forcibly displaced: war, political persecution, economic instability and repression. Still, most of the world’s migration is internal, i.e. within the same country. Among the tens of millions displaced in 2015, 21.3 million were refugees, but 40.8 million were internally displaced. People usually change their homes to improve household income, for marriage or other purposes relating to family.

With climate change, however, its worsening slow onset effects such as droughts, effects from sea level rise and water shortages will cause many more to leave their homes and move to safer places. Such migration may be a choice in the initial stages; for instance, a young member may travel to a city close by during a drought to increase his or her family’s income. But as the stress becomes more severe, the decision to move may be forced. The gradual rise in sea levels wherein people are compelled to leave their island nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and become climate exiles is one such ongoing process that will likely increase out-migration over time

Why people move

In “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration”, a recent report by the World Bank, it is estimated that in Latin America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa over 143 million people would be forced to move within borders by 2050 as a result of slow onset climate events alone. In the worst-case scenario, about 40 million of these migrants would be in South Asia, which is the most populous of the regions studied, with a number of climate change effects anticipated.

The report examines countries in East Africa, South Asia and Central America more closely. Here, it dives deep into the conditions in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Mexico. Three possible scenarios are described: high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions along with unequal development paths, regarded as the pessimistic reference scenario; an inclusive development scenario with high GHG emissions but development paths that improve access to services for the poor and consider their priorities and unmet needs; and a climate-friendly scenario involving lower GHG emissions but with unequal development.

South Asia is characterised by rain-fed farmland in large parts of the region. With variability in the monsoons and warmer temperatures, crop failures will lead to migration from the Gangetic plains and from the rice-growing northeast of Bangladesh and the inundated coasts. In the pessimistic scenario, the numbers forced to move internally in South Asia are expected to increase six-fold between 2020 and 2050 and will continue to rise beyond 2050 without appropriate climate action. Even in the inclusive development and climate-friendly scenarios, tens of millions will be forced to migrate. While people normally gravitate to big cities, those along the coast such as Mumbai, Chennai, Chittagong and Dhaka will themselves be vulnerable to storm surges and other effects from sea level rise.

The poor would be the worst affected by these slow onset events and most of them would migrate out of rural areas to nearby urban settlements, which would be cities and the peri-urban surroundings. Such “hotspots” of in and out migration would be stressed for natural resources, public services and livelihoods. In India, areas between Chennai and Bengaluru have been highlighted in the report along with those around Mexico City, Guatemala City and Nairobi. In India, there are already signs of unplanned and frontier-led growth in peri-urban areas. Past experience shows that planning that ignores the ecosystem services provided by local natural resources such as water tanks and forested areas generates further problems particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

The implications of these internal migrations will be significant for development in the areas and for the lives of these people. Therefore, understanding migration patterns, getting better socioeconomic data on migration and preparing in advance through appropriate planning become critical. The scenarios used in the Bank report could be extended to cover other time periods and could also be more localised. Current climate modelling methods are not accurate at high resolutions for local decision-making, but these are expected to improve over time.

What can be done?

What kind of policies are needed? Reducing GHG emissions is of utmost urgency, although that seems to be taking place at a pace determined by geopolitical as well as local initiatives. Second, integrating internal migration with ongoing development planning is vital. The peri-urban areas, which are expected to be hot spots, already show problems of water shortage, waste management, nutritional deficiency, limited services such as health and education, and poor infrastructure. Ecosystems, part of the natural resources in peri-urban areas, ought to be protected as “special ecological zones”, so that as urban settlements expand, they don’t eat into ecosystem services. Skill building, job training and other opportunities for education and jobs for locals and migrants would also have to become a focal point. Rights for those who are forced to migrate would be fundamental in these preparations, as studies and experience have shown that ignoring issues of social justice and equity in adaptation can lead to serious governance failure.

Sujatha Byravan, a scientist, studies science, technology and development policy

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