Catastrophe or strategy?

Guest post by Kayly Ober at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Environmental Change and Security Program in Washington, DC, USA.

The claims on climate change-induced migration have often been hyperbolic: “one billion people will be displaced from now until 2050”, “200 million people overtaken by…monsoon systems…droughts…sea-level rise and coastal flooding”, “500 million people are at extreme risk” from sea-level rise. However, hard data is difficult to come by or underdeveloped. The International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) has set out to fill this gap with their newest publication, “Not Only Climate Change: Mobility, Vulnerability and Socio-Economic Transformations in Environmentally Fragile Areas of Bolivia, Senegal and Tanzania.” As the title suggests, the author, Cecilia Tacoli, traveled to Bolivia, Senegal, and Tanzania in order to see how environmental change affects migration patterns in real world case studies. What she found was a bit more nuanced than the headlines.

Case Studies: Bolivia, Senegal, and Tanzania

Despite existing predictions of doom and gloom, the report found that there has been no dramatic change in mobilization in each community, even in the face of recurring droughts. Instead, those who rely heavily on agriculture for subsistence have turned to seasonal or temporary migration. While previously considered a last resort, moving locally from rural to urban areas has become more common. The motivation for following this option, however, seems to be couched more in socio-economic concerns and only marginally exacerbated by the environment.

“All the case study locations,” writes Tacoli, “are in areas affected by long-term environmental change (desertification, soil degradation, deforestation) rather than extreme weather events. However, in the majority of locations residents identify a precipitating event – a particularly severe drought, an epidemic of livestock disease, the unintended impact of infrastructure – as the tipping point that results in drastic changes in local livelihoods. In all cases, socio-economic factors are what make these precipitating environmental events so catastrophic.”

Practical Policy Prescriptions

Although the report finds that the environment wasn’t currently the main driver of migration in Bolivia, Senegal, or Tanzania, it acknowledges that it may play a larger role in the future: “Environmental change undoubtedly increases the number of people mobile,” Tacoli told BBC News. “But catastrophe like droughts and floods tend to overlap with social and structural upheaval, like the closure of other sources of local employment that might have protected people against total dependence on the land.”

As such, Tacoli suggests treating migration as a practical adaptation strategy rather than a problem. “The concentration of population in both large and small urban centers has the potential to reduce pressure on natural resources for domestic and productive uses,” she writes.

For example, Tacoli argues that the resulting remittances and investments from migrants in urban centers fuel “a crucial engine of economic growth” in smaller towns where land prices are cheaper. This, in turn, creates further employment opportunities.

The report also encourages policymakers to focus on local interventions, such as ensuring more equitable access to land, promoting the sustainable management of natural resources to reduce vulnerability, and investing in education, access to roads, and transportation to markets. These programs would help diversify and bolster non-agricultural livelihoods, thus reducing to the risks of climate variability.

“Local non-farm activities,” writes Tacoli, “can be an important part of adaptation to climate change for the poorer groups, and the nature of the activities can contribute to a relative reduction in local environmental change.”

Avoiding Backlash

Tacoli points out that “by downplaying political and socio-economic factors in favor of an emphasis on environmental ones, alarmist predictions of climate change-induced migration can result in inappropriate policies, for example forced resettlement programmes, that will do little to protect the rights of those vulnerable to environmental change.”

However, Tacoli is careful not to over-extend her policy prescriptions. In an email to the New Security Beat she emphasized that the case studies were not intended to be representative:

"The emphasis is on the need to have a detailed understanding of the local context – socio-economic, cultural and political – to understand the impacts of climate change on migration and mobility…Generalizations are not usually helpful for policy-making, and a grounded understanding of the local factors that influence livelihood responses (of which mobility and migration are one aspect) is certainly a better starting point. The aim of the report is to contribute to the building of collective knowledge on these issues, rather than provide a definitive account."

The full post by Kayly Ober can be found on The New Security Beat, and is published here courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars” Environmental Change and Security Program.

Photo Credit: “Villager in Tanzania,” courtesy of flickr user vredeseilanden.