Migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change

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Source: International Business Times, August 5, 2014 15:06 IST by Neha Singh

“Migration and human settlement in coastal areas and their linkage with climate change need to be established” – Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in response to Odisha Climate Change Action Plan.

With a 480-kilometre-long coast line, Odisha, is prone to climate mediated cyclones, floods, and coastal erosion. All 30 districts of the State are vulnerable, according to a multi-hazard mapping done by Odisha Disaster Management Authority.  On 25 October 1999, one such severe cyclone, with windspeed of 300 mph, lashed the entire coast of the State.

As a result, many coastal districts had to be evacuated. This forced movement is not a one-off event. Thirty-six percent of the State’s population[1] is subject to temporary and permanent migration.

Climate change contributes to migration

Given the proximity to Mahanadi river, a large section of the population relies on fisheries for their livelihood. However, floods intensified by climate change, have reduced the relative abundance of fresh water in the ecosystem. This has negatively affected the availability of fish and impeded the earning capacity of the people. Reduction in fish catch is reported across the coastal tract of Odisha, forcing fishing families to migrate to other areas and pursue a different source of livelihood.

Sea level rise and seashore erosion is one of the emerging problems due to aggressive sea behaviour, increased low-pressure phenomena and manmade factors. According to an assessment by the Institute of Ocean Management[2] at Chennai’s Anna University, more than a third of Odisha’s coastline is prone to erosion, and eight percent is vulnerable to severe erosion.

Climate variability contributes significantly to poverty and food insecurity that forces people to migrate to other areas- sometimes out of State or to diversify to different livelihood options.

Rising sea levels causes saline incursion in coastal areas, affects agriculture productivity and availability of fresh water for drinking. For instance, in the coastal Jagatsinghpur district, increase in saline incursion has led to shortage of potable water from tube-wells.

A study conducted by Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA)[3] attempted to map the climate change risks with the existing migration pattern in the Mahanadi delta from census data and primary stakeholder interactions. The coastal blocks were found to be more vulnerable with increase in net migration. They are bio-physically and socio-economically at very high risk.

Although the above maps do not point to climate change risks being the sole contributor to migration, it does establish that the number of migrant households increase with increasing climate change risks as given in the table below. 

Building resilience through migration

There is no doubt that migration of large number of people does indeed create stress on infrastructure and socio-economic provisions. If migration is not carefully planned and assisted, there is a risk that it can turn into maladaptation i.e. leave people more vulnerable to environmental changes. It manifests in different ways such as a decrease in school attendance and increases in child labor.[1]

Having said that, migration doesn’t have to be the last resort of the vulnerable – a desperate flight suggesting failure to adapt to environmental changes. It has the potential to become an adaptation strategy with multiple benefits, a fact recognised in the Cancun Adaptation Framework. For example, a seasonal or temporal migration allows migrants to diversify their livelihood and it eases the demographic pressure in their region of origin[4].

A well-designed policy measure will reduce the social and economic cost of this movement.  Thus, for migration to realise its potential as an adaptation strategy, policy interventions are required to be aimed a wide range of stakeholders. Some of these are:

  1. There is a significant gap between people’s knowledge of future climate impacts and policymakers’ understanding of how the affected people perceive their vulnerabilities. Educating both the parties about current and expected changes as well as potential adaptation strategies is critical. Such education will support better decision making.[5]
  2. Technology is a useful tool to monitor migration particularly to understand the numerical aspects. We should go one step further and try to capture the reasons why people migrate. The added effort will provide a broader understanding to take forward-looking policy decisions.
  3. Designing social protection and income-earning opportunities like skills training, alternative livelihood programs, and community-driven development initiatives for those who remain behind in areas affected by disasters/climate change.
  4. Ensuring that the most vulnerable groups are involved in adaptation planning. Groups such as the elderly, extreme poor, and disabled need to be involved in the development of migration-related adaptation plans if the benefits are to accrue to them as well as to more resilient households.

Climate-induced migration should be effectively addressed as part of a broader development framework, and within a climate change adaptation strategy instead as a new issue.[6] Through the right policy framework, we can ensure that the most vulnerable retain a sense of choice and dignity in their movements, under a changing climate[7].

This article is written by Dev Paikaroy. Dev is the Technical Expert in Odisha for Action on Climate Today initiative. Contact him at dev.paikaroy@actiononclimate.today. 

[1] Odisha Climate Change Action Plan 2010-15 (Page-37, Table: 6.2, Chapter: 6.2. Coasts and Disasters)

[2] http://igsss.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/CC-doc.pdf

[3] DEltas, vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation. It is a 5 years project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). The project is led by University of Southampton, UK

[4] http://www.iddri.org/Publications/Migration,a-possible-adaptation-strategy

[5] KNOMAD Policy Brief 6_Environmental Change and Human Mobility (February, 2017)

[6] Navroz K. Dubash (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ingrid_Boas/publication/268632572_Climate_change_migration_India/links/5472d2fe0cf24bc8ea19a2ac.pdf)

[7] https://weblog.iom.int/migration-adaptation-strategy-climate-change

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