Migration forced by climate change is happening. The need now is to see how the migrants can be integrated into the places to which they are moving

Sea level rise in Bay of Bengal has triggered large-scale migration in Sundarbans, the Ganges-delta of India and Bangladesh. (Image by Sayamindu Dasgupta)

Everyone knows that climate change is displacing people, but no government is willing to acknowledge this officially, for fear of having to recognize these people as refugees and be held responsible for their welfare.

According to the International Organization on Migration (IOM), the number of persons forced to migrate due to climate change and environmental degradation by 2050 has been forecast to vary by a factor of 40 (between 25 million and 1 billion) and it largely depends on which climate scenario unfolds.

In a recently published document, Climate change and migration in Asia and the Pacific, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has narrated some grave causes and consequences of climate-induced displacement.

While the scientific community still struggles to define “climate refugees”, countries have started to realize that displacement and migration due to extreme climate events is becoming a gigantic crisis, both at the national as well as the global level.

India and Bangladesh argued for about 30 years over control of New Moore, a tiny rock island in the Sunderbans. The argument ended recently when the island was engulfed by a rising sea. Sugata Hazra, professor in Jadavpur University in Kolkata, says, “What these two countries could not achieve from years of discussion has been resolved by global warming.”

Until 2000, the level of the Bay of Bengal rose about 3 millimetres (0.12 inches) a year in the Sunderbans. Erosion and mangrove destruction were the other factors reshaping the bay. But, since 2000, the water level in the bay has been rising about 5 millimetres (0.2 inches) annually, Hazra says.

Another nearby island, Lohachara, was submerged in 1996. At least ten more islands are presently at risk, which will only lead to more migration of coastal inhabitants, thereby leading to more conflict.

Association for Climate Refugees (ACR), a network of NGOs, has been trying to document how and where people have been displaced, who the refugees are, and how many there are.

Mass scale forced displacement has been caused by tidal floods in the exposed coastal area and loss of land due to erosion in the main river basins. The population living in South and South-East Asia on the coastline extending from the east coast of India to Myanmar have been buffeted by more frequent cyclones and ever increasing tidal floods. Research reveals that the tidal flood water level has risen by a metre between 2004 and 2009 and continues to rise.

Researchers in the state of Assam in India and in Bangladesh have estimated that around a million people have been rendered homeless due to erosion in the Brahmaputra river basin over the last three decades. Of the 64 districts in Bangladesh, 22 are at risk of climate-induced displacement. The figure can potentially go up to six million people.

The Finance Minister of Bangladesh said recently, “We are asking all our development partners to honour the natural right of persons to migrate. We can’t accommodate all these people – this is already the most densely populated country in the world. Climate change ignores country borders making it a global problem; however, we cannot ignore country borders and have to begin to work regionally and globally for mutual benefits and interests. We welcome suggestions and assistance for effective and efficient resettlement of climate refugees.”

Climate change will significantly affect migration in three distinct ways:

  1. The effects of warming and drying in some regions will reduce agriculture potentials and undermine ecosystem services such as clean water and fertile soil
  2. The increase in extreme weather events – in particular, heavy rainfall or snowfall and resulting floods
  3. Sea level rise will permanently destroy extensive and highly productive low-lying coastal areas that are home to millions of people

About 85% of Maldives’ main island, which contains the capital Male, can be swamped due to sea level rise. Most of the country would be turned into sandbars, forcing around 300,000 people to flee to India or Sri Lanka or some other country.

Researchers emphasize the importance of mainstreaming environment and climate change considerations into migration management policy and practices, and to bring forced migration issues into global environmental and climate change discourse. The protection of climate refugees should be seen as a global problem and a global responsibility, says Swayamprabha Das, a researcher based in New Delhi.

Komal Kantariya of the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority points out that some of the pathways through which global environmental change would influence and shape various drivers of migration in India are based on uncertainties associated with the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that impact the decision making process for migration, both at the household and community level. The decision spans a wide spectrum, from temporary relocation to displacement through to migration, both short-term and long-term.

Understanding the choices, trade-offs and opportunities across this spectrum is essential to better design policies which harness the potentials of migration in a changing climate scenario and build the resilience of the migrants and their families.

At heart of this is the fact that agriculture, one of the primary livelihood sectors in rural India, is also one of the most climate-sensitive sectors. Erratic weather patterns, pest outbreak, increasing salinity and many more such factors leading to crop failure and erosion of the livelihood asset base determine the decision to migrate. Further aggravating the situation is the lack of adequate market opportunities and financial support for these livelihood systems to readjust and rebuild.

Coastal livelihood systems have also been witnessing unprecedented changes and decline because of a changing oceanic ecosystem, unsustainable harvesting practices, fluctuating market and natural disasters. Cyclone Phailin, which hit coastal Orissa in October 2013, has triggered large-scale migration of fishing communities.

Mountain ecosystems and livelihood systems are facing a similar situation. The floods of 2013 in the Himalaya have posed a serious threat to a whole array of livelihoods including that of pilgrimage tourism. Such natural disaster induced displacement and migration need to be well documented and these issues should be considered as part of the larger policy measures of disaster management and resilience building. Appropriate disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures, including financial and risk transfer mechanisms, would address such issues of distress and forced migration.

Of significant importance is the rate of urbanization in India and the expanding economic opportunities, which attracts and absorbs a large chunk of migrants from rural India. Urban development policies need to innovate appropriate institutional mechanisms ensuring availability of and accessibility to facilities of health, water, electricity, housing and education. Further marginalization and discrimination in the cities would not only increase the migrants’ economic vulnerability but will also impact the well-being of their families and dependents back home.

Private sector could play a leading role in this through innovation and exploring new market opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid. A report, Opportunities for Private Sector Engagement in Urban Climate Change Resilience Building – supported by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) – identifies a set of economic opportunities for the private sector in the urban resilience programme. Such opportunities could be explored further and supported to help better integrate the migrants into the overall urban economy.

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