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Climate change and migration

Dr Minani Gurung

Dr Minani Gurung

Climate change and migration

Global warming exacerbates Nepal’s old problems of poverty, marginalization, state neglect, inequality, discrimination, and out-migration

Climate change-related migration is not a future hypothetical situation; it’s a global reality today. The climate crisis is redefining our world, as the Earth’s climate is changing at a quicker rate than at any other time in human history.

Climate change can jeopardize food, water, and economic security when paired with physical, social, economic, and/or environmental vulnerabilities. Displacement, loss of livelihood, weaker governments and, in some cases, political instability and conflict are secondary repercussions of climate change. Climate change is widely recognized as a contributing and exacerbating factor in migration and conflict.

Migration in response to climate impacts may range from mobility as a proactive adaptation strategy to forced displacement in the face of life-threatening risks. This mobility may occur within or across international borders. Specifically, one model forecasts climate change may lead to nearly three percent of the population (more than 143 million people) in three regions—Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America—to moving within their country of origin by 2050.

Climate change, rising sea levels, more frequent cyclones, flooding of rivers fed by melting glaciers, and other extreme weather events are intensifying internal and international migration in South Asia. Further, rapid economic expansion and urbanization are hastening and amplifying the impact and drivers of climate change. To make matters worse, many of the new urban developments are in low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. 

The World Bank estimates that by 2050, South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) will have lost 1.8 percent of its annual GDP owing to climate change.  According to the New York Times, living conditions of 800 million people could dramatically deteriorate, resulting in mass migration—possibly at an unprecedented level.

Although the majority of those displaced or migrating as a result of climate change stay in their home countries, cross-border flows are increasing, particularly in regions where climate change collides with conflict and violence. As the effects of climate change become more severe, it is critical to understand the factors that may mitigate or exacerbate migration, and to develop strategies to proactively and humanely manage these impacts.

Nepal’s situation

Poverty, marginalization, state neglect, inequality, discrimination, and out-migration have always plagued the Himalayan country, and these issues precede climate change. All these current structural problems are exacerbated by global warming. As 1.3 billion people live downstream and rely on its rivers, the loss of Himalayan ice will have disastrous implications. Glaciers in the Himalaya’s central and eastern regions are already receding at a rate of up to 30 meters a year.

In Himalayan villages, half of the youngsters are malnourished. The national poverty rate in Nepal is 23 percent, but mountain residents account for 42 percent of the country’s impoverished. Faced with irregular weather and other climate change effects, the poor are already being pushed to migrate.

Droughts, flash floods, and rising temperatures are becoming more common as a result of climate change, lowering crop yields across Nepal. Water tables have dropped, glaciers are melting, natural springs have dried up, and snowlines have fallen across the Himalayas. This monsoon, over 80,000 people were sick with dengue in an unprecedented outbreak, which scientists blamed on a changing environment. An unusual tornado struck the Bara area, killing 80 people and destroying towns. Every year, floods in the Tarai are getting worse. The change in climate is giving people no choice but to migrate.

How should we prepare?

First, early effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to alleviate climate pressures that cause internal climate migration. This must be a global effort starting now.

While climate migrants fleeing intolerable conditions are similar to refugees, they do not have the same legal rights. As there is no coordinated effort to monitor the migratory population, desperate individuals migrate where they can, not necessarily where they should. Dedicating greater resources to mitigate climate migration also helps.

Shifts in population distribution can also be part of a successful adaptation strategy if they are recognized and skillfully handled, allowing individuals to move out of poverty and develop more sustainable livelihoods.

The most effective method of improving the migratory process is to do research, which might include increasing migration monitors, offering safer forms of transport, and consolidating and extending integration resources to destination countries. More research, particularly new granular data on climate change consequences at the regional and country levels, is needed to support these plans.

To conclude, climate-induced migration reveals the deep link between climate change and development, which in turn has a direct influence on people’s lives and livelihoods.

This global challenge has and will continue to create a multitude of critical issues. Climate change is a risk amplifier as it can worsen economic insecurity or political instability, leading to migration. Climate change impacts are anticipated to get worse when coupled with growing backlash against migrants and refugees around the world, stretching institutional capacity and governance and increasing the cost of adaptation. In the long run, stopping climate change is the only solution.

The author is the founder of One Health Research and Training Center