The World Bank recently released an important report on climate change-induced migration, titled ‘Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration’. It covers three major regions of the world comprising Sub Saharan Africa (SSA), South Asia (SA) and Latin America (LA), and projects that by 2050 climate change could potentially cause 143 million additional people to migrate internally. The estimates for individual regions include 86 million, 40 million and 17 million for SSA, SA and LA, respectively.
There is a silver lining, however. These numbers represent a ‘pessimistic scenario’ and hold in case no action is taken. Under the other two alternative scenarios that include adopting ‘more inclusive development’ and ‘more climate-friendly’ policies, the minimum forecasted numbers drop to 65 million and 31 million people, respectively. That said, under all three scenarios, the number of people propelled to move due to climate change will only increase by 2050. People will move from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘viable’ areas.
The report claims its uniqueness in that it is “the first of its kind to introduce slow-onset climate impacts into a model of future population distribution.” But I suggest it is also novel because the report seems to adopt, more implicitly than explicitly, a people-centred livelihood perspective. By highlighting how droughts, crop failures, rising sea levels affect people lives and livelihoods, vulnerability to climate change is viewed as situated within the broader set of livelihood circumstances of people.
So what is different about these migration numbers? After all, people across the world migrate for better incomes, education and healthcare. That is indeed true. But what distinguishes this migration is the fact much of it will be distress-driven and involuntary in nature. Put simply, it is migration as a last resort, when all other option fail. It is when staying put involves hunger, disease, disability and even death. While migration decisions are complex and it is not always easy to pinpoint climate change as a sole stressor, it is certainly a factor that aggravates vulnerability.
The tragic irony is climate change will displace those from their habitats who are least responsible for this planetary crisis. It is the rural poor with already limited means whose lives and livelihoods will be hardest hit. Social and gender relations can confer more disadvantage to women and children in particular, as often is the case in crises.
Where does India figure in all this? The World Bank report presents a global picture and does not provide a detailed country-level analysis as such, except for case studies of three countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mexico. But overall, there is ‘strong evidence’ that increased rainfall unpredictability and warming temperatures will make seasonal and long-term migration necessary for livelihood sustainability in many countries, including India.
The need to prepare for climate migration is perhaps more significant for India than any other country for two important reasons.
First, the sheer size of the country and levels of poverty provide a compelling enough reason. India has 270 million people who live below the poverty line of $1.90/day. A large majority of the country’s poor people live in rural areas who are most prone to climate-driven shocks due to their low adaptive capacity. Second, the significance of internal migration as a livelihood strategy is already on the rise. Per one 2009 estimate, nearly 100 million people in the country remain on the move for their livelihoods in any given year – a number endorsed by the Economic Survey 2016-17. Rising rural distress and urban-centric nature of economic growth means migration is increasingly from rural to urban areas. Climate change will further push more people to move to cities.
Of course, this is a broad generalisation based on prevailing rural-urban inequalities in India and should be taken as such. Not all rural areas will be ‘outmigration hotspots’, nor will all cities turn into ‘in-migration hotspots’. The Chennai floods of 2015, which severely disrupted lives and livelihoods, remind us that cities remain vulnerable, too. Moreover, the unplanned and unbridled expansion of Indian cities makes them more susceptible to climate change’s effects. But the significance of rural-urban migration will rise in future as agriculture-dependent livelihoods come under increasing climatic stress, and urban (and peri-urban) areas will continue to support the growing number of people.
Not everyone will be able to move out, however. Women, children and people from disadvantaged caste groups may be left in strained environments that exacerbate their vulnerability. A 2014 study in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, for example, showed that embankments built to deal with floods resulted into women losing privacy to go to toilet and thus reducing food consumption to one meal a day to minimise toileting to once a day; children facing frequent disruptions in education as schools remain closed; and Schedule Caste families occupying low-lying and unprotected sides of the embankment, exposing them to flood vulnerabilities anyway.
We need to respond to this climate crisis through a pragmatic mix of climate action and more inclusive development policies. India’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and leadership in the Global Solar Alliance show promising signs on climate action. But we need to do more. On the inclusive development front, our response should consider the different vulnerabilities of those who move as well as the ones who stay, in both rural and urban areas.
In rural areas, this would involve supporting the livelihoods of people and strengthening social support systems, particularly for women, children and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations. We already have an extensive net of social security measures, including the PDS, NREGA and the ICDS, which cater to different population segments. While they suffer from problems of maladministration and pilferage, if strengthened, they can provide important means for the rural poor to cope with climate shocks.
At the urban end, this does not mean stopping mobility. Migration can be a successful adaptation strategy and also help rural populations improve their life chances in the long run. Public policy response requires creating more inclusive and resilient cities that provide poor migrants and their families with decent and dignified jobs, affordable housing, access to health and education, and improved water and sanitation facilities to help them deal with climate shocks and improve their lot. There are larger benefits from these actions. Higher urbanisation, if properly managed, can generate greater economic prosperity, create more plural urban spaces and communities, and lead to wider diffusion of progressive ideas and action on gender and caste-based inequalities.
Climate action and inclusive development policies at the rural and urban ends can not only mitigate the worst effects of the groundswell but also provide an opportunity to create more economically and culturally prosperous and resilient society.
Chetan Choithani is a postdoctoral research associate at the Urban Studies Institute, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University.