'Where will people go?'

Last Updated 13 July 2009, 11:06 IST

Koko Warner’s research focuses on two climate adaptation paths: environmentally induced migration and environmental change, and financial mechanisms to assist the poor including (micro) insurance and remittances. She answers questions on Green House Gas emissions, and the crisis that could result from migrations.

Has the reduction of GHG emissions come too late? What are the consequences of melting glaciers? 

Yes. But industrialised nations that have historically contributed to the rise in GHG emissions have reacted too slowly to the urgent call to cut emissions that drive anthropogenic climate change.  The consequences of melting glaciers will be a “game changing” phenomena for our planet. In terms of human society, the impacts will range from increased flooding and erosion in the near-term, making it difficult to capture and utilise water resources in areas as widespread as Europe, the Andes and the Himalayas. In a few decades when glacier melt peaks and meltwater begins to decline, millions of people dependent on glacier-fed river water for agriculture will be affected. 

If we now collectively fail to avoid climate change by reducing emissions, we risk driving humanity into a crisis of massive scale involving migration and displacement. It’s also important to note that the impacts of climate change are not just going to be felt in developing countries. Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the protective dykes led to the immediate evacuation of 1.5 million people. Of those, only one-third or about 500,000 people have returned to the New Orleans area.

How does environmental change affect human mobility? 

Our research on migration and climate change indicates that the pathway through which climate change affects migration decisions is through livelihoods. In the coming decades, climate change will motivate or force millions of people to leave their homes in search of viable livelihoods and safety. Although the precise number of migrants and displaced people may elude science for some time, all available estimates suggest their numbers will be in the tens of millions or more.

Considering we are sovereign states with clearly demarcated boundaries, how does this affect human mobility? 

Often people searching for better lives through migration are stopped at the border. This is especially true where migration is already a politicised issue, such as in border areas between the US and Mexico, between India and Bangladesh, in southern Africa, and in many other areas throughout the world.

Adding to the stress that climate change places on people, migration will likely emerge as a phenomena within countries and within regions. Where borders are rigid, its possible that “pressure points” could emerge at certain border areas. Ongoing work by the UNCHR, IOM, OCHA and other organisations is looking at these mobility and border issues.  

Does that mean wars could be fought over people fleeing the effects of climate change?
Our research did not look specifically at conflict. However, interviews in the field did offer anecdotal evidence of local level tension in some areas. For example, some of our interviewees in Niger noted that tensions between farmers and herders pushed people towards areas that were still suitable for agriculture and herding—the pockets or “better places” in the region that were not as severely affected by trends associated with climate change.  

Bangladesh is vulnerable to cyclones and flooding. But India is overpopulated with billions living below the poverty line. Comment. 

People cultivate almost every square kilometre of the Ganges Delta. Maps we recently did with Columbia University CIESIN, CARE, and the UNCHR show that a significant part of coastal Bangladesh could be inundated with a one-metre sea level rise, and that much larger areas of the country could be flooded for parts of the year because of storm surges and sea level rise.

Our research in Bangladesh raised the question, “where will people go?” in a densely populated country where nearly all habitable land is already under cultivation and otherwise in use.

Most people will seek refuge in their own countries while others cross borders in search of better conditions. 

Some migration and displacement will be prevented through adaptation measures, including changes in agricultural productivity and integrated water management.

However, poorer countries are under-equipped to implement wide-spread adaptation activities; and migration will be the only option for many people in the South. 

Delegates from Bangladesh in the recent climate talks told us that migration in Bangladesh will likely be internal, as income levels across the border in India are at about the same levels.

Yet our research did indicate that people who lose their livelihoods in part due to environmental pressures (like storm surges, erosion, sea level rise) could in the future stream into urban slum areas—nearby Dhaka and Kolkata could be destinations.

The question then is not only “where will people go,” but “can urban slums and other urban areas absorb the large number of people who may lose their homes and livelihoods in the future, associated with climate change.”

(Published 13 July 2009, 11:06 IST)

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