Landscape News /
An academic paper published in 2015 controversially linked Syria’s civil war to severe drought and land degradation in 2007-2010, suggesting that subsequent unemployment, economic insecurity and rural-urban migration precipitated the unrest and instability that followed.
The study attracted significant interest and shifted the discourse surrounding the “migration crisis” engulfing Europe, sharpening the focus on climate-induced migration and “climate refugees.” The Syrian case was increasingly seen as a harbinger of future crises: deteriorating environmental conditions leading to insecurity and mass displacements.
However, this narrative and the very concept of climate or environmental refugees has been questioned by leading migration experts. Migration, they counter, is a multi-causal phenomenon and attributing movements to one particular factor is extremely difficult. While environmental factors like drought and degradation may influence migration flows, a focus on environmental migration may overlook more significant political and socio-economic drivers. In the case of Syria, for instance, persecution, violence and the struggle for political freedom.
An over-emphasis on environmental drivers could also ignore a long history of mobility among affected populations and neglect the fact that migration decisions are often determined by personal and household characteristics, the costs of moving, and proximity to migration networks.
DETERIORATING ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS
That said, it is generally agreed that environmental factors will become more important in the future as climate change intensifies. The U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), for example, estimates that some 135 million people could be displaced by 2045 as a result of desertification, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that an increasing number of people could be forced to abandon climate-vulnerable areas or escape extreme weather events and conflicts initiated by competition over increasingly-scarce resources.
Drylands are particularly vulnerable. These marginal regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, and the African Sahel, extend across some 41 per cent of the earth’s land surface and are home to an estimated two billion people. They are on the frontline of climate change – already hot and dry, they are expected to become significantly hotter and drier over the course of this century.
They are prone to drought, degradation and desertification – threatening the viability of ecosystems, agricultural production systems, and food security. Rising poverty and competition over resources could lead to further unrest in regions already experiencing instability and displacement.
INVESTING IN RESILIENCE
Can we prevent climate-induced migration? A logical response suggests that investing in the resilience of rural communities in climate-vulnerable areas would help to maintain rural livelihoods and reduce the incentive to migrate, an approach reflected in the U.N.’s landmark Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, published last week.
The compact, a non-legally binding framework, states that member countries will commit to creating “conducive political, productive, economic, social and environmental conditions for people to lead peaceful, productive and sustainable lives in their country of origin and to fulfill their personal aspirations while ensuring that desperation and deteriorating environments do not compel them to seek livelihoods elsewhere through irregular migration.”
The “migration crisis” in Europe has also prompted European policymakers to promote development as a way of addressing the root causes of migration. For instance, the European Union’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa has pledged some $3.3 billion to generate economic opportunities and provide people with an incentive to remain in their communities and countries of origin.
However, targeting development to address the root causes of migration has been perceived with some skepticism – since impacts tend to be highly contextual, the available evidence is often contradictory, and there is no data to show that development and aid agencies effectively target migration-sensitive sectors or communities.
Development aid would also need to operate at vastly different scales. In a recent policy brief, Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel of the Center for Global Development suggest that “aid would need to act in unprecedented ways, at much higher levels of funding and over generations to sufficiently affect drivers of migration.”
In fact, they argue, the available evidence suggests that development could actually encourage migration – by raising aspirations and providing the economic resources that finance migrant journeys.
AVOIDING INVOLUNTARY DISPLACEMENT
Limiting involuntary displacement is perhaps a more practical target. An initial step would involve improving the quality and quantity of migration-relevant data in order to better understand climate related migration and help devise appropriate policies and investments that target migration-sensitive sectors and communities.
Proactive responses to environmental challenges like drought could include early warning systems that are able to facilitate strategic and targeted responses – intervening to provide assistance where it is most needed. Reforestation could also help. The Great Green Wall – an initiative stretching across 8,000 km of the African Sahel – is helping to improve soil health, deliver more fertility, and reverse desertification in a region prone to out-migration.
Additional investments in climate-smart agriculture are being prioritized. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sees promise in off-farm activities and sustainable agricultural practices that limit the impacts of climate change, raise productivity and protect natural resources.
The sustainable intensification of food production, according to the UNCCD, would also avoid crop expansion, deforestation and desertification. Committing to these investments now could help to avoid mass displacements and catastrophe in the future.