Migration seen through the prism of climate change

Published September 3, 2014
Villagers lead livestock from the drought-hit Tharparkar district in southern Sindh provinceon March 11, 2014. – AFP Photo
Villagers lead livestock from the drought-hit Tharparkar district in southern Sindh provinceon March 11, 2014. – AFP Photo

Halting climate change is impossible.

Sounding alarm bells of almost apocalyptic magnitude, scientists and climatologists are saying that it would impact natural resources directly, making some parts of the world virtually uninhabitable. This, inevitably, would result in mass movement of human tide.

Norwegian minister of foreign affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre affirmed that back in 2011 at the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement:

“Human displacement due to climate change is happening now. There is no need to debate it.”

The realisation, somehow, has not hit authorities in Pakistan, who remain in a state of denial. This, despite the reality of having witnessed a movement (albeit a slow one) of people from rural to urban centres, due in part to climate-related events which have been taking place over the last several decades.

Since the 1970s, the towns of Thatta and Badin, on the Indus coastal belt, have seen families migrating (an estimated 40,000 people) due to water shortages, seawater intrusion (which has rendered up to 1.2 million acres of land infertile), and extreme events like the cyclones of 1999 and 2005) to the neighbouring port city of Karachi.

 A Pakistani woman displaced by the floods walks along a flooded road holding an axe to cut wood, in Digri district near Hyderabad. - Photo by AP
A Pakistani woman displaced by the floods walks along a flooded road holding an axe to cut wood, in Digri district near Hyderabad. - Photo by AP

Climate change may be a scientific fact, and difficult to grasp, but it is already being increasingly felt by humans.

Naseer Memon, head of the non-profit institution Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO) told Dawn.com:

"Unfortunately neither the policy nor the government acknowledges that climate change has any direct link with migration. The government has other priorities and climate change does not feature on its list."

Haris Gazdar, a senior researcher at Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research, emphasised that "all policies and programmes addressing climate change should include migration analysis as a component".

The Global Climate Risk Index 2014, which analyses the extent to which countries have been affected by the impact of weather-related events (storms, floods, heat waves); states that Pakistan, Haiti and the Philippines were most affected in 2012.

Thus the recent paper "Climate Change and Migration Exploring the linkage and what needs to be done in the context of Pakistan" [*a priced publication] by Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), provides much food for thought and an opportunity to look at climate change through the prism of migration and vice versa.

The paper asserts that the consequences of climate change are likely to influence population movements significantly in the future.

- Photo by AFP
- Photo by AFP

At another level, the paper provides a forum to open conversation between scientific community, humanitarian workers and policy makers to fine tune and review old policies and put in place operational mechanisms to manage inevitable climate-induced displacement.

But before plunging into taking action, the response has to be guided by relevant knowledge. Therefore, the paper calls for a population census (late by almost 25 years) that takes into account environmental factors; a national migration policy and to mainstream migration-related concerns into the overarching development and climate change policy.

Oxfam's 2013 study on the Indus delta migration had, among other points, also recommended a migration policy to cover both internal and external migration. It called for studying the existing patterns and potential routes and destinations of migration in years to come; and to expand the definition of in-migration to include population movements within the same districts in the national census.

However, Adnan Sattar, the author of the LEAD paper has consistently argued that climate change-related migration cannot be seen in isolation from "other forms of migration" including, say, labour migration or environmental migration.

He also stressed that when talking about the various movements, it was important to take "a more humane or human-centered approach."

Talking to Dawn.com, Sattar said: "What we need is a comprehensive migration policy that covers both internal and international migration; and frames migration as an adaptation strategy in the face of new challenges, including the challenge of climate change."

He also added that policy has to be underpinned by a "strong normative commitment to human rights, equity and non-discrimination."

If Gazdar were asked by the government to help form a policy, he said he would add a number of "cross-cutting themes such as poverty, vulnerability, gender, public goods, social protection, and of course, migration."


Old laws, new mobility

The paper takes a look at various international laws covering migration to see if climate change figures specifically in them and finds "increasingly restrictive immigration regimes for migrants from developing world most affected by the impact of climate change".

Even Pakistan's Climate Change Policy, released in 2013, is silent on the possibilities of climate-related migration, the shape it may take or the areas it is likely to happen. It fails to look at ways to facilitate planned migration or reduce forced migration.

According to Sattar, the 1998 United Nations Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement should not only be a source of continued reference, but that Pakistan should implement them through appropriate laws, policies and institutions.

 - File Photo
- File Photo

Sattar said successive governments in Pakistan have either adopted a "hands-off" approach towards migration or, in the case of external migration, seen it exclusively as an "economic opportunity to raise remittances".


Putting climate change-related migration a political challenge

Today, many think that prevention of displacement and management of climate induced risk should be put on political agenda as solutions lie therein.

There's a huge list of questions that need to be addressed — and addressed soon, based on the kind of migration (short term and short distance); and measures required around which the policy can be formulated.

How cities plan on absorbing a burgeoning migrant population; would the displaced be provided basic employment rights and social support mechanisms that established residents enjoy. Even the toll the influx will have on urban planning, infrastructure etc will require political solutions.

"A nuanced understanding of the migration story in Pakistan makes it abundantly clear that political economy plays a key role in the patterns of population movement," said Sattar.

Giving examples of large-scale migration of labourers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the north and Southern Punjab to the industrial hub of Karachi; he blamed skewed development policies for favouring commercial agriculture and industrialisation.

"Much of ethno-nationalist politics in Sindh, for example, is intimately tied up with successive waves of migration into the province's urban center. In the coming years and decades, denial of the reality of climate change, including its manifestation in the form of greater frequency of extreme events, could spell disaster for the country. Some of the policy changes required to address the climate change challenge may strike at the heart of political and economic interests of Pakistan's political elite.

"We may need to phase out certain water-intensive crops, for example. Such proposals will not go down well with the all-powerful owners of sugar industry in Pakistan. So, it's not just an issue of awareness but competing economic interests as well."

He acknowledged that while solutions may not be easy to implement, he hoped the more progressive political actors realised that marginalised groups are likely to suffer most as the consequences of climate change.


Migration — no silver bullet to adaptation

The paper also looks at two aspects of climate change-related migration.

One relates to local adaptation, which reduces the need for migration and particularly stress migration; while the other talks about migration as a planned adaptation response to consequences of climate change.

 Image shows a native woman of Tharparkar with her child.—Photo by Hussain Afzal
Image shows a native woman of Tharparkar with her child.—Photo by Hussain Afzal

As climate change increases, local knowledge becomes increasingly outdated (knowing when to sow, harvest) and needs to be propped up by modern and scientific tools.

At the same time, improvement in weather forecasting may not be enough; communities need to know how to use this information. Early warning systems need to be invested in, but they require modern equipment as well as people who are trained to read and decipher that information. Based on past experience, the building codes are flouted and land-use plans not enforced.

The paper points out the need to strengthen the capacities of National Disaster Management Authorities and its provincial and district counterparts.

"Adaptation should make people resilient enough to cope with climate change impacts and co-exist rather than migrate," according to Memon. He said that if government and local initiatives were "smart" enough, adaptation would strengthen and enable people manage the challenges instead of migrating.

Moving is not easy. The report argues that often a time, climate change even prevents people from moving, as migration requires resources and people have become poorer due to impact on livelihood from climate change.

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