Climate change and migration?Mike Shanahan | 08 December 2013
Though there is disagreement about terminology – some use politically loaded terms such as “climate refugees” -- the concept of climate migration has been loosely defined as the forced displacement of individuals or groups by sudden or gradual changes in their environment that adversely affect living conditions. The factors behind climate migration are numerous, and diverse: these “sudden or gradual changes” can include rising sea levels eroding the land beneath coastal communities, the desertification of farmland, or the major damage and flooding that a tropical cyclone can inflict. Water scarcity, too, represents a major threat to human development and security that is certain to exacerbate as temperatures rise. Almost 40 per cent of Africans live in water-scarce environments; by 2030, a lack of water is projected to displace upwards of 24 million people.
Research shows that most migrants who move to avoid environmental problems do so for relatively short distances and durations, and that the poorest and most vulnerable people are the least likely to move. While some governments see migration as a problem and something to discourage, for the migrants themselves movement is a form of adaptation to climate change.
Climate migration can be short-term or long-term; an annual movement to cope with yearly flooding, or a sudden response to a natural disaster that has wiped out an entire town. As with many trends, it is impossible to assign total causation for the migration of peoples to climate change; many other social, political, and cultural factors are always involved.
Throughout much of Africa, climate migration is driving urbanisation, one of the defining features of Africa’s shifting demographics. According to the UN, by 2050, Africa’s urban population will jump from 414 million to 1.2 billion people. While urbanization can propel economic growth, an explosive growth in urban populations can place a strain on cities’ limited resources, and further exacerbate existing stresses. In particular, climate change is expected to further increase the number of Africans living in slums: as of 2010, 61.7 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population were slum dwellers, more than anywhere else in the world. The crowding of African slums, many of which are low-lying and thus themselves prone to flooding, is in turn is likely to increase vulnerabilities to malnutrition, poor sanitation, air pollution, and disease.
Where migration and conflict meet
In Northwest Africa, one can see the growing nexus between climate and international security. Migrant workers have long made the trek from Nigeria to Niger, Algeria, and Morocco. But, according to a Center for American Progress report, not only do these migrants face heightened threats of drought, flooding, and coastal erosion as they cross through the Sahel, one of the regions most affected by climate change in the entire world, they also have seen their numbers swell in size. As a result, migrants have increasingly come into violent contact with insurgents in Nigeria and Algeria, a trend that will likely continue without major policy intervention.
Darfur: Ecological disaster first?
The genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the United Human Rights Council estimates that up to 400,000 have been killed, has prompted some analysts to label the situation the world’s “first climate change war”. While experts will disagree over the extent to which we should attribute the conflict to climate change, the region has been plagued by a severe reduction in rainfall since the disastrous drought of 1984. This has driven fierce competition for a shrinking pool of resources. In 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a statement blaming climate change for the trend of pastoralist communities migrating southward to seek new means of livelihoods. Not only has such migration placed these refugees directly in the path of armed conflict, but it is also contributing to new ecological problems, as refugees’ search for fuel-wood and water has led to deforestation and depletion of aquifers in and around their camps.