How Climate Change Accelerates Migration

FROM: Hanna Dedial - 18. January 2022

Migration as a response to changing environments is nothing new; in fact, it is part of the story of how humans inhabit our planet. Detailed research on how climate change influences migration, however, is of more recent origin. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognizes migration as a climate change adaptation strategy. Yet it seems more and more likely that societies, individuals and ecosystems will be overwhelmed by and unprepared for the volume of migration and resulting change triggered by rapidly advancing climate change.

How can development organizations such as Helvetas respond to these complex interlinkages and best serve our community partners? To gain more insights on this, Helvetas, in collaboration with the local grassroot organization Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), conducted multi-year action research on the nexus of migration and climate change in the coastal areas of Bangladesh, one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. The research, which focused on the Panii Jibon project, was supported by the Climate Justice Resilience Fund (CJRF) and the City of Zurich.

Following the publication of the research paper in late 2021, international experts were invited to share insights on the field of climate change and migration in a webinar hosted by Helvetas.

Researching climate displacement

Shiuli is a 35-year-old woman from a village near the Bay of Bengal in the Khulna region in Bangladesh. In 2008, cyclone Nargis destroyed her home. The area was flooded – and the water would not drain. Shiuli's husband, who was a rickshaw puller, lost his job because the roads became impassable for vehicles. The family moved to the city in search of work. Due to the higher costs of living they could not afford to all stay in the city, so Shiuli moved back to the village. There she found that what once were green meadows were now saltwater swamps. Agriculture was impossible; due to a lack of alternatives, people were breeding shrimp in the stagnant salt water.

Shiuli's story is just one of many in Bangladesh. Its location and topography make Bangladesh vulnerable to climate disasters. The 2019 Climate Risk Index has even identified the country as one of the “Top Sufferers” of extreme weather events. Residents of coastal regions are doubly affected, since they are exposed to sudden onset disasters such as heightened water salinity, as well as slow onset disasters such as water logging. The coastal region of Bangladesh, with its millions of poverty-affected inhabitants, was therefore selected to be supported by the Panii Jibon project and the subject of the action research.

Shakirul Islam of OKUP, a grassroots organization based in Bangladesh, is co-author of the newly released Migration & Climate Change Publication and led the survey. “We started the first round of surveys in 2018, collecting data from 480 households,” he says. In the second round of the survey in 2020, only 392 of the households were available for follow-up questions. “The others have been displaced during that two-year period,” Islam explains. In addition to the survey, 20 in-depth case studies were conducted, with Shiuli’s story being one of them. 

The climate in coastal Bangladesh

All 70 villages in the survey are severely affected by both sudden and slow onset disasters. Cyclones are the prevalent form of sudden or rapid onset disasters. They can lead to increased soil and water salinity; the overall salinity in the area has increased by massively in the last decades .  The high concentration of salt affects the quality of the soil and drinking water, and also destroys houses.

Floods and monsoon rains also affected 78% of the villages in the sample villages. This causes prolonged waterlogging, which saturates the soil with water and damages the agricultural value of the land. This leads to the plants “suffocating,” since not enough air reaches the roots. In addition to making fields unusable for most kinds of crops, waterlogged soils release increased amounts of nitrous oxide, a particularly damaging greenhouse gas.

Due to tidal surge and tropical storms, 47% of the villages have also suffered severe erosion. A lot of erosion occurs along the riverbanks of the Jamuna river, one of the longest rivers in the world.  Seventy percent of the inhabitants of the researched areas have suffered from partial or complete damage of their houses between 2000-2019.

The “absorb, adapt and transform” coping strategy

The action research found that the coping strategy of the Bangladeshi people affected by climate disasters is to "absorb, adapt and transform." Affected people often initially take out loans to rebuild their homes or their businesses rather than leaving for the next village or town. Unfortunately, life is not the same after a disaster due to destroyed infrastructure.

When their previous livelihood is no longer possible or in demand, many try their luck in other professions, but our study concludes that 11% of those who have looked for a new profession fail in finding new work. In general, 32% of households have at least one person who is unemployed, and 82% of households have at least one family member who migrated for a better livelihood between 2000-2017.

The study also comes to the worrying conclusion that 65% of the respondents migrated for the first time after 2000, when the severe sudden onset disasters started to accumulate. This means that the “absorb, adapt and transform” coping mechanism cannot work when individuals pass the tipping point where livelihoods are compromised beyond reasonable hope of recovery. “Hence, environmental factors do play a key role in migration,” concludes Esther Marthaler, Senior Advisor Migration & Development at Helvetas. According to Marthaler, the decision to migrate is shifting away from voluntary migration based on personal aspiration towards forced migration. Independent research by Dr. Vally Koubi and Jan Freihardt of ETH Zurich confirms that the connection of climate change as a driver for migration is increasing rapidly. "In the last two decades, the number of people forcibly displaced due to climatic events has more than doubled," says Dr. Koubi.

“Climate Change is a direct and indirect aggravating vector and a threat multiplier,” adds Marthaler. “It is a vicious circle, which also leads to maladaptation, such as the unsustainable use of fertilizer or intensive shrimp farming. We need to be looking for options in the place of origins and come up with combined interventions that foster the capacity to make informed decisions about migration rather than ad hoc decision making, and must take the circumstances of climate change-affected populations into account.”

Migration of people from coastal regions of Bangladesh is mostly domestic – only 4% seek their fortune outside the country's borders. This coincides with the experience of Lorenzo Guadagno, the Liaison for Migration, Environment and Climate Change at IOM. He says, “Migrants are often not moving to better areas, but to ones equally disaster prone. That’s why it’s extremely important that the local government of the receiving areas must be enabled, not only where the people leave.”

Tackling a complex issue through policies and coalitions

More evidence is needed to get governments to pass suitable policies. Dr. Koubi explains that this is difficult since existing research is either anecdotal or limited to one area, which limits its ability to be generalized. For this reason, legislators currently have too little data to act on climate change or enhance preparedness for climate related migration. Therefore, empirical evidence and action research are needed.

Dr. Koubi and her colleagues recently surveyed 3,650 migrants and non-migrant families in Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda, Nicaragua and Peru and found that only 5% of migrants identify climate change as the main reason for their migration. While rapid on set events increase the likelihood of migration, slow onset disasters are not necessarily leading to migration in the short term. This may be due to the fact that families lack human or financial resources to migrate. Currently, few communities have an understanding of climate change as a driver of migration. They are more inclined to ascribe their migration decision to economic factors.  Climate change is often the driver of this economic stress.  

We need to better understand the tipping points where a climate induced stress triggers the decision to migrate. This will help improve preparedness to support communities to absorb the stress or to help them be in more informed migration that contributes to their social and economic development. Heather McGray, Director of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, emphasizes the importance of the longevity of such planning: on one hand, the consequences of sudden onset disasters must be addressed through social safety nets including for the affected household; on the other hand, it’s urgent to begin planning for the longer term, including slow onset events. For this to happen, local actors, including governments, must be enabled to plan ahead for the longer term, beyond classical project durations.  

Governments are also key when it comes to creating policies that make migration an enabler of development rather than something that deprives communities of options and choices. As Guadagno says, “Every migration has an adaptation value – people are agents of change themselves.” There’s a lot that can be done to use the potential of remittances for reducing risks and enhancing adaptive capacities.

Ashish Barua, Project Manager of the Helvetas Panii Jibon project in coastal Bangladesh, explained how Helvetas is using the findings of the action research. After analysis the results, the project is fostering discussions on climate-induced migration and future livelihood options – before disasters hit. Another important project pillar is offering skills development opportunities for particularly vulnerable households. Panii Jibon combines these two goals: “Fifty-eight women and youth started entrepreneurial activities, dropping their decision on migration,” says Barua. “A number of them even created skills development opportunities for other local youth!” The strategic use of remittances for climate-resilient economic or livelihood activities has also been part of Panii Jibon’s activities. “Around 10,000 women learned how to better use their remittances and have invested their money to create income and jobs for others.”

To learn more about the current discourse on migration and climate change, listen to what experts in the field had to say in the recent webinar hosted by Helvetas.

Download the new Migration & Climate Change publication.