As extreme weather events increase across South Asia due to climate change, there is an urgent need to address the issue of forced migration of large numbers of people

Frequent floods and cyclonic storms in South Asia are forcing people to migrate (Photo by Flickr)

Frequent floods and cyclonic storms in South Asia are forcing people to migrate (Photo by Flickr)

At the United Nations climate meet in Bonn, disasters such as this year’s heavy rains, floods and two cyclones in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar have become a talking point, indicating how such extreme events will increase in a warming globe, as scientists have warned. An outcome of such extreme events will be more forced migration, another topic highlighted in side events, as it slowly finds its place in climate negotiations.

In South Asia, as climate models predict a wetter future, especially for the Himalayas, where the major rivers of this region originate, extreme rainfall, intense cyclones and more floods are likely to displace more people in the coming years. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a leading source of data in this field, has placed India on top — along with China and the Philippines — amongst countries that face displacement on account of disasters. It is storm and flood events that drive most of the displacement in India as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar. Lowlands, coastlines and islands that flank some of the greatest Himalayan rivers are particularly vulnerable.

Reports suggest that the monsoon floods this year have displaced hundreds of thousand of people in the region. During this monsoon season, tropical cyclone Mora and floods — and landslides that came with it — in Bangladesh, Myanmar and India displaced about 851,000 people, reports show. More than 477,000 people were evacuated to shelters in coastal Bangladesh, and later as the storm moved northeast over land, causing floods and landslides more people were evacuated. In Myanmar, more than 19,000 people were displaced. Scientists foresee more displacement from the region as sea levels rise.

Mobility outcomes

“The precise locations and movements of people displaced by disasters are not publicly documented,” said an IDRC spokesperson. “Displacement caused by sudden-onset natural hazards is chronic and in many cases short-term, as hazards are cyclical, recurrent and seasonal.”

“What we see here is a wide range of mobility outcomes — from evacuation and displacement to short- to long-term migration as adaptation, and planned resettlement,” Soumyadeep Banerjee, a migration specialist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional knowledge hub based in Kathmandu, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

People in the cyclone-affected areas of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India narrated how they live on embankments and roads on a higher elevation till the floodwaters recede, and then migrate to other villages and towns to work till their submerged fields become arable once again. Often, longer-term, people depend on remittances from family members who have migrated. Guno Borah, 40, from a flood-prone village in Lakhimpur in Assam, said her son has migrated to Maharashtra and sends her money regularly. She started a bank account to receive and save money, so she could go without borrowing when she needed medical treatment.

The policy challenge is to look at disaster-related mobility comprehensively. “Often governments take a silo approach without an overall view of the problem,” Banerjee said. It is like the home affairs takes care of evacuation and displacement, relief department deal with resettlement, and labour department looks at long-term migration — officials hardly even sharing notes.

As climate change threats include intense rainfall, runoff of melt water from the Himalayan glaciers, storm surges of intense cyclones covering more area, and sea level rise, these factors act together with huge impacts on people’s livelihoods, habitats and mobility. As Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at Dhaka says, though at present it may not be scientifically correct to tag movements in the region as climate-induced, in future, there will be large-scale forced migration from areas affected by climate change. “South Asia needs a plan to address this challenge,” Huq told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Policy challenges

Official documents of South Asian states initially mentioned migration as an outcome of climate change. However they later largely shied away from addressing migration, a sensitive topic in regional politics. India has stated its position on climate change mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The document notes how rain-fed agriculture covers 60% of the country’s net sown area, with 40% of the total food production affected by frequent droughts, floods, climate variability and extreme weather. The Indian document, however, is silent about climate-related migration. Bangladesh’s NDC does not mention it either.

In Bangladesh, policies in general are silent about the adaptation potential of migration. However, the country now has a National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Displacement, the result of several international studies, and collaborative work of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and local think tanks. There is also a regional initiative by these organization and other UN agencies to better understand climate-related migration.

As for regional consultations, a recent knowledge forum organised by the Platform on Disaster Displacement discussed human mobility in the context of changing climate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas and protection challenges and options. The delegates — experts and policy makers — stressed the need to integrate human mobility in national policies on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development across the region.

Experts have been brainstorming on this topic. Huq, for instance, suggests a three-phase plan, as people might have to migrate from the country’s low-lying coastal areas in 20 years. “The idea is to adapt, educate and plan. Right now we need to adapt to changes such as salinity intrusion and flooding,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Then we need to educate and train boys and girls to future careers away from the coast at international destinations. In the long run, we need to plan, enable and facilitate migration.”

Grim future

The Himalayan water tower of Asia, from where some of the greatest rivers originate, is a hotspot of climate change. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system together has one of the largest catchments in the world, draining an area of about 1.7 million square km. ICIMOD reports that the temperatures across the Hindu Kush–Himalayan region are predicted to increase by about 1–2 degree Celsius on an average by 2050. That will lead to changes in precipitation, with the monsoon expected to become longer and more erratic. Meanwhile extreme rainfall events are becoming more violent, and more likely to increase in intensity. That means more river flow, and more variability in the flow – and in turn, more unexpected floods and droughts.

Projections of floods show more runoff into five great Himalayan rivers — Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong — till 2050. That is due to an increase in the precipitation — rain, snow, etc. — in the Upper Salween, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mekong basins and more snowmelt in the upper Indus basin.

While models indicate that global warming will cause an increase in the average intensity of tropical cyclones with intensity increases by 2100, the north Indian Ocean trends are still debated. Tropical cyclone intensity is defined by the maximum mean wind speed over open flat land or water — sometimes referred to as the maximum sustained wind. There is a possibility of higher storm surges in coastal Bangladesh and India, inundating places far away from the coast. Storm surges in the Gangetic delta often move 30 miles or more inshore along river networks and tidal influence, inundating low-lying riverbanks and riverine islands.

Another threat for coastal cities and villages is sea level rise, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts. The panel warns with very high confidence about increase risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems, from storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, sea level rise and storm surges.

The Himalayan rivers are known not only for their flow rate and floods, but also their high velocity and the large amounts of silt they carry, leading to a combination of accretion and erosion. While floods are temporary, the impact of riverbank erosion can be long-term and irreversible, thereby uprooting many people. Along erosion-prone banks people often get displaced multiple time, each time the rivers swallowing up their homes and farmland.

Adaptive future

Migration experts are increasingly viewing different forms of human mobility as inevitable and often even a positive, adaptive feature in the face of climate change. The 2015 demanded that parties (to the UN Framework convention of Climate Change) respect, promote and consider their respective obligations towards migrants, among others, when addressing climate change. It also mandates protection of people, resilience of communities and the significance of livelihoods.

At Paris, the 21st conference of parties (COP 21) formed a task force to integrate approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to climate change impacts. It is the Task Force on Displacement that is now working on a set of recommendations in 2018 to be presented at climate summit at Katowice in Poland. Bonn is offers a window of opportunity for experts, activists and policymakers to share notes.

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