09/2011: Margareta Wahlström


Margareta Wahlström
Special Representative of the
UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction


“Climate change and migration: the latest evidence”


Ü Eurasylum: According to some estimates, between 25 million and one billion people could be displaced by climate change over the next 40 years. Most of such displacements would occur in developing countries. Can you guide us through the latest evidence about the key factors, characteristics and impacts of such involuntary migration?

Ü Margareta Wahlström: I do not believe it is possible to state with any certainty the exact numbers of people who will be displaced solely as a result of climate change over the next 40 years. In order to have a better understanding of the relationships between climate change, environmental degradation, natural hazards and population displacement more work needs to be done on clarifying the impact of climate change on national economies and communities over a period of time.

We need to recognize that migration happens for many reasons, and to improve our understanding of the triggers that make people leave their homes, and for how long and over what geographical distances they are prepared to travel.

The issue of people migrating for socio-economic reasons is a well-known phenomenon but it is not always directly linked to how people cope with the medium and long term impacts of climate variability. If we try to isolate one single cause of migration, we are unlikely to put in place the correct mix of mitigation and prevention measures that will protect those who decide to stay at home which is really the preference of most people. There is also a clear need to understand how disaster risk reduction measures and climate change adaptation measures – or the lack thereof – influence peoples’ decisions to move or not.

There is not one definition of ‘involuntary’ migration which will help to define policies. Clearly much migration is caused by economic pressures such as decreasing agricultural yields, for example, due to lack of water; cyclical droughts; capitalization of agricultural assets; lack of national investments in modernizing agricultural processes and general lack sustainability for rural dwellers. Climate change can be one of several contributory factors.

People who are part of large scale migration usually head to urban areas. More than half the world’s population now live in urban areas. Many move for economic opportunities, some for a taste of modern life, others for educational opportunities, and some even go in search of cultural change.

It is evident from various studies that the overwhelming number of people who leave their homes travel very short distances to the nearest urban centre/city, the national capital or the neighboring country. A very small number of people attempt long distance and dangerous migration to explore faraway job opportunities. In other words, although large numbers of people worldwide are migrating, their migration range is limited, and those whose successful or tragic stories we see in Europe, for example, represent a very small percentage of people who move to look for better life opportunities.

Today, some of the fastest growing urban areas are in Africa. Migration to African cities from the rural hinterlands is creating new urban populations who are better educated and healthier than their parents. This trend puts enormous pressure on urban development planning and on existing infrastructure but it also presents the possibility of creating an improved safer urban environment which meets the needs and expectations of both migrants and longer established urban dwellers.

There is an increasing need to look at the risk posed by natural hazards to urban centers. In view of the importance of the question, an increasing number of cities is joining a world wide campaign “Making cities resilient” supported by UNISDR which identifies concrete measures to improve the safety of urban areas (see:

Concrete examples of direct climate/weather impacts on the economic base of large communities can typically be found among the populations who live in river basins and close to coastlines. Many, in particular, live in low-lying, river basins which are already affected by both salt–infiltration from the sea and by regular cyclones whose impacts are becoming more and more destructive. Salt-infiltration means agricultural production will decrease and even become impossible. The obvious challenge for any Government then will be to organize alternative space for people from such delta regions and to ensure work opportunities so they can earn a living.

The key element common to existing and future climate change displacement is vulnerability – specifically the vulnerability of people and livelihoods to climate and environmental stresses.

If one considers, for example, existing rural-urban migration patterns, one notices that migration is driven by multiple context-specific factors. Yes, climate and environment do play a role in migration, but so do other factors such as the availability of non-farm employment and crop insurance, access to irrigation, fertilizer and drought-resistant seeds, governments’ drought relief policies, social protection programmes, and so forth.

The true impacts on displaced communities will only be assessed based on where they are able to resettle and how they are received. In terms of host communities, the impacts of climate change-related displacement are expected to affect all sectors, including health, employment, housing, and education, to name a few. Again, the impact of migration flows on each of these sectors depends on both the volume of migration, as well as the capacity of receiving systems to adapt.

Ü Eurasylum: What are the priority policy measures that should be designed to minimise the risks associated with migration in response to climate change, and to maximise the ways in which migration can increase adaptive capacity?

Ü Margareta Wahlström: The first priority is to recognize that migration is mostly a positive phenomenon that generates economic opportunities. A number of studies have identified the positive economic impact generated by migration. If that is recognized, then the important issue is to ensure the safety and welfare of the migrants and that their investments in the host country or at home through remittances are not exposed to risk or impacted by natural hazards. It is therefore critical that risk information is publicly available to enable migrants and their families to take informed decisions, for instance, on where to settle and on where to open their businesses. At national level, policy decisions on migration should also be fully informed by an understanding of the potential risks from natural hazards.

A further medium-term measure is to work with countries and communities that are under particular pressure due to climate impact. Here we can contribute to an adjustment of national development policies and investments that will give alternatives to people in particularly exposed areas; economic opportunities to develop other sources of income and to improve current sources of livelihoods. The current development models do not yet take this very urgent issue into consideration and this will cost a lot to realign as we shift focus.

Like disaster risk reduction policies, migration policies should be both forward looking, as a proactive investment in the future rather than a reactive response to the present, and based on assessments of existing and potential future migration flows. As you suggest, in many cases migration can be a positive outcome that increases the adaptive capacity of communities. Temporary migration and improved access to resources and entitlements can help communities diversify livelihoods in ways that make them more resilient to climate hazards. Many current policies do not minimize risks, and poorly conceived drought and flood relief policies can effectively “lock in” the vulnerability of communities to future droughts and floods. Such policies must be replaced with a risk reduction approach that addresses the underlying causes of vulnerability that result in displacement and forced migration. The Rio+20 Conference in June 2012 will be a critical opportunity to make sure that future policy decisions concerning sustainable development are based on a careful assessment of the consequences of disasters, the risk posed by hazards and the full integration of disaster risk reduction measures to protect existing and future development gains.

Ü Eurasylum:In terms of research and data, what activities should be supported in the near future to increase and refine the existing evidence base, particularly with a view to improving the forecasting capacity of public authorities in sending and receiving regions?

Ü Margareta Wahlström: I will list some for you.

– Investment in national meteorological and hydrological services to allow state planners to have more concrete data for short, medium and long term planning projections.

– Recognize and integrate knowledge that peoples’ motives for migrating and moving on are multifaceted. Focus on what motivates people to keep a base at ‘home’ and to move for shorter periods and why they see it as natural and viable to return home.

– Identify the most vulnerable to climate change impacts and determine viable responses e.g. decrease population pressure, or improve the community’s economic base. And while there is a need to use science and technology, seek to identify leaders that are ready to take action based on the knowledge generated.

– Always engage the local population. They know their areas well and how the area has changed over decades. This provides a solid basis for decision making. The knowledge exists already as do the tools and technology.

– The figure of one billion displaced, though still quoted from time to time, has been retracted by its authors. Climate impacts are one set of multiple factors that can lead to migration. Our understanding of climate change’s impacts on migration should derive from a more robust understanding of existing migration patterns, because in many cases climate change is likely to amplify existing migration flows. In addition, few estimates account for temporary migration – a key gap given that many migration flows relate to seasonal work or short-term coping.

– The good news is that there are methodologies and modeling tools that can fill in these gaps. Once these models have been calibrated with past and current climate data, livelihoods data, and migration statistics, they can then be used to project a range of potential future migration patterns, based on changes in climate and development trajectories, which can help authorities to plan.