While ‘climate migrant’ is increasingly used to refer to people escaping the impacts of global warming, migration can also be a strategy to help households adapt to the effects of the changing climate around them, according to recent research in South Asia.
However, the effect of COVID-19 on remittances could reduce the capacity of some migrant families to cope with the impact of the climate crisis, while other returnees may actually benefit from being able to better respond to risks.
“When people speak of migration and climate change they speak of it as displacement. Because of extreme climate events people are forced to move (but) people move for various reasons,” says researcher Amina Maharjan, a specialist in livelihoods and migration at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). “Labour migration is critical so that households in the home country can continue to function, including to build adaptive capacity.”
After their research three years ago in parts of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, Maharjan and her co-authors confirmed earlier findings that multiple forces besides climate change drive people to migrate.
‘Limited economic development, the range of government support to communities, capacity to access credit and markets, social cohesion, and political instability are equally important in migration decision-making processes,’ they write in the research paper published in the journal Current Climate Change Reports.
In a few cases migrants set out with a goal of adapting to climate change, says Maharjan. For example, in flood-prone Mahottari district in Nepal returning migrants are building concrete houses raised nearly two metres off the ground so their families and possessions are safe during monsoon floods.
“A lot of youngsters there want to go abroad with that in mind — to earn enough money to come home and build such a house,” adds Maharjan.
The research found that 29% of households in river basins, 41% in semi-arid plains, 39% in semi-arid plateaus, and 24% in deltas reported migration of one or more members. Most migrants were married young men of 21–30 years with secondary or higher education levels.
While most migration was internal, international migration was high in study sites such as the Gandaki river basin in Nepal, Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna delta in Bangladesh, and Faisalabad district in the semi-arid plains of Pakistan.
Whether migration helps households back home adapt to the impacts of climate change depends also on the capacity of those going abroad, the study found. For example, migrants with more education or plumbing or electrician skills will earn— and remit — more money, which can then be leveraged to take out a loan to finance activities to help build the household’s adaptive capacity. Unskilled labourers, however, will often send home barely enough to make ends meets.
Yet even where migration produces resources to cope with increased floods, droughts or crop failure, households will fail to adapt unless supportive measures are in place.
“Individual efforts are never going to be sufficient,” says Maharjan.
She describes how locals in Rasuwa district observed that there was less rain over time, leaving the soil drier, and stronger winds were toppling the tall bean plants. Farmers realised that they needed to replace the long beans with a shorter variety, but the government did not provide seeds for the short beans. So the plan, an opportunity to adapt to the changing climate, failed.
Maharjan notes that limited investment by the Nepal government in climate adaptability is creating challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in one village in Langtang only 10 of 160 families have continued to farm because, as conditions changed over time, agriculture became less productive.
This was exacerbated by the 2015 earthquake. Now, tourism once more collapsed, the families have resorted to planting potatoes to feed themselves. “This shows their resilience,” Maharjan says, “however any negative climatic event can erode this strategy and push households into a precarious food security situation. The government should consider this lost opportunity and play a bigger role while planning adaptation in the post-pandemic environment.”
Climate researcher Ajaya Dixit thinks that the pandemic could also present an opportunity to build capacity at local level to respond to risks like climate change: “You don’t have to explicitly mention climate change, but I think If you have a monitoring and evaluation capability at the local level, it would go a long way to addressing things like pandemics, health issues and climate change.”
Dixit adds: “In some way this pandemic could make us think again in a much broader sense — you make investments in education and health and you inadvertently create a mechanism that could address some of the risks that climate change might bring in.”
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MIGRATION MITIGATION, Editorial