The environment is already affecting patterns of human migration. On the island of Hatia, along coastal Bangladesh, 22 percent of households have migrated to cities as a coping strategy following tidal surges. But we would be wrong to assume that our only concern should be for the millions of people who might try to leave areas of environmental stress that are affected by hazards such as droughts, floods, water scarcity and land degradation. In fact, a recent UK report has shown that a focus on populations migrating away from environmental change neglects two key groups of vulnerable people: the many millions who will actually migrate into areas of environmental threat, and those who will be trapped there by economic, social or indeed environmental challenges.

The report, “Foresight: Migration and Global Environmental Change,” released by the U.K. Government Office for Science, has found that the decision to migrate is a complex and multi-faceted one. This two year study, which I oversaw, involved 350 leading experts from more than 30 countries. It found that migration patterns are influenced by a wide range of inter-related drivers, including social ties, political situations and the desire of individuals to earn a wage. Global-scale changes to our environments will increasingly affect these factors, for instance through further eroding rural livelihoods and eliminating income streams. Yet, paradoxically, a deteriorating environment is also likely to make migration more difficult for many of the world’s most vulnerable, because it eats away the assets that local inhabitants need to make this move. This is what makes identifying “environmental migrants” so problematic—just because a person’s environment is deteriorating doesn’t mean he or she will move.

We often forget that migration is not easy; it can be expensive and often relies on having good social ties in some other area, reasonable economic capital and favorable political conditions, such as the existence of bilateral migration arrangements or the absence of conflict. We only have to look to the Horn of Africa to see how, with droughts and conflict converging, the opportunity for families and communities to migrate to somewhere more stable and hospitable is increasingly unlikely. In Somalia, movement in response to drought was rarely an option for the poorest cattle-herders, and the presence of armed conflict means that even those who could previously have afforded to migrate can no longer pass through areas that are now unsafe. Therefore, although migration patterns are likely to be a concern for most governments, the alternative—population pressures increasing in locations where people have little chance to move and diversify their incomes—is arguably even more troubling.

What this means is that just because a community faces environmental hazards, even severe ones, it does not necessarily follow that local people will migrate to escape those conditions. Indeed, the argument comes full circle once we identify the circumstances in which people do move. Analysis in the Foresight report shows that in certain scenarios to 2060, around 190 million more people will be living in low-elevation coastal cities in Africa and Asia where the threat of flooding is very real. Part of the reason is that people move into urban areas to improve their economic prospects regardless of the environmental threat. In Dakar in Senegal, for instance, 40 percent of those who moved there between 1998 and 2008 moved to areas of high flood risk. The city’s natural geographical confines prevented alternative settlement options for those who wanted to find jobs in the city.

These pressures on the world’s cities are now a significant global concern. The United Nations observed that 2008 was the first year that more people lived in cities than in rural areas, and attention is beginning to focus on urban planning in the context of increasing populations and environmental threats. Yet migrants to cities are often the most vulnerable, raising the need for specific policies that address the fact that these people do not have the capital, connections or even rights to live anywhere other than in the most dangerous parts of cities. Furthermore, they may not be aware of the community norms for responding to environmental hazards, and they often have inadequate voice or representation in local planning processes. Redressing these issues will be critical if local and national governments are to avoid deteriorating and potentially disastrous urban conditions for significant portions of their populations. The right policies can also enable migrants to contribute more to the societies they arrive into and come from. The Foresight report presents examples created by Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba in southern Brazil, when he pioneered a series of municipal land-use and transportation policies to address some of the challenges posed by rapid influxes of migrants, which ultimately made possible some of the benefits migration can bring in terms of increased diversity, expertise and creativity.

Indeed, what is clear from this study is that migration itself can be a positive force in the face of growing environmental instability. For example, the remittances sent home by migrants from mountainous parts of China, India, Nepal and Pakistan are perceived by people in the home communities as essential for investment in housing, health, education and improved agricultural technologies. From Bangladesh to Burkino Faso, migration—which more often than not happens within a country, over short distance and short duration—has consistently provided communities with opportunities to improve their prospects, adapt to changing conditions and become more resilient in the face of hazards. In many situations migration can actually enable those who stay behind to remain in place longer, because it allows households and even whole communities to diversify their income streams, social ties and knowledge bases.

In an increasingly unstable world, with growing pressures on resources and environmental change threatening livelihoods, the research, policy and operational communities need to do all we can to plan for and prevent the potential disasters that lie on the horizon. The Foresight study shows that it will be the poorest of the poor who will lack the resources to migrate when they need to, often because they are trapped in hazardous areas in conditions ripe for humanitarian catastrophe. I have just launched another project, “Improving Future Disaster Anticipation and Resilience,” to better understand the role that science and technology can play in helping us to better predict disasters and to build our resilience to hazards and avoid such disasters. However, what is clear from the recent Foresight project is that migration—if properly planned and managed—can in fact be part of the solution.


Photo of Bangladesh man courtesy of gumtau on Flickr