Likely effects of environment change on migration through an insight in Asia. Migration, displacement, desperation and devastation

Scientific Essay, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 75


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Migration and environment change

3. Likely outcomes of the effects of environment change on migration

4. Migration - problem or solution?

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


Ten per cent of world’s population currently lives on land only 10 metres above the sea level (Costanza, 2011:6), which is rising at a rate of 3.5 millimetres per year since the early 1990s (Nat Geo). Seventy-four per cent of world’s poor are directly affected by land degradation, which, owing to drought and desertification, is happening at a rate of 12 million hectares per year (UNCCD). And according to an estimate, when compared to year 2000, there may be between 114 and 192 million additional people living in floodplains in urban areas in Africa and Asia by 2060 (Foresight, 2011:6), most of whom would again be poorest of poor. While United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is debating the recognition of climate threat as a reason for forced migration (McAdam, 2011), the pressure is rising among the people to survive. Environment change not only threatens lives of people in these regions through direct impact like hurricane, drought, flood or fire, it also indirectly affects the sources of livelihood by affecting crop production, threatening livestock or creating resource scarcity for industrial sector. Trapped in such a scenario, people react in one of the following ways: 1) they migrate (migration) or are forced to migrate (displacement); 2) they migrate to even more environmentally threatening places (desperation); and 3) they are not able to migrate due to lack of financial, social or demographic strengths (devastation) (Foresight, 2011). In several cases, the last two options coupled up with unplanned forced migration translate into further negative implications for already uprooted groups of people. Besides, climate induced migration is mostly internal and in case of cross-border movement is not covered by global governance regimes. In an attempt to discuss this issue, this essay is divided into three parts - first part discusses the effects of environment change on economic, social, political, demographic and environmental drivers of migration. The second section elaborates on the possible outcomes of this effect by citing past examples from Asia. And the final section discusses the debate around migration as a problem or a solution with respect to environment change.

2. Migration and environment change

While there is an ongoing debate over actual impact of environment change on migration (Piguet et al., 2010), most scholars agree that different drivers of migration interact with each other to create migratory effects (Black et al., 2011). Evidence is available for several African and Asian countries where environmental change increased economic or social stress, instigating migration for better livelihood or social opportunities (Foresight, 2011; Reuveny, 2007). However, before understanding the interaction between these drivers and effects of environment change on it, it is important to understand the five categories of human migration drivers. Economic drivers induce migration through difference in employment opportunities and income between different places. Social drivers cover cultural practices like marriage, educational opportunities and familial or cultural expectations. Demographic drivers are size of population and frequency of diseases that affect morbidity. Political drivers cover conflict, security, discrimination, persecution and enforced relocation. The environmental actors of migration comprise of exposure to hazard and availability of ecosystem services. Although, economic and social pressures are the leading documented causes of migration (Black et al., 2011:S5), migratory decision are seldom made due to a single driver. The decision to migrate is often taken at the household level in conjunction of several factors, which can be common in a society or unique to the household, like income pressure, health hazard or conflict (common) and age group, social network or resilience (unique). Families or households act collectively not only to maximise expected income, but also to minimise their risk (Massey et al., 1993:436). This causes variation in response to environment induced crisis and thus creates complexities in study of climate refugees (Piguet, 2010). However, it also means that if environment change affects a single driver it changes the complete equation of migration for the household.

Black and his co-authors stipulate that in future, environment change is likely to impact this decision either by directly affecting environment drivers or indirectly impacting the other drivers. They identify five ways by which global climate change, induced by increasing concentration of greenhouse gases, will directly affect environment in future: 1) rise in sea level will lead to coastal flooding, salinisation of low lying agricultural land and erosion of wetlands and mangroves; 2) a change in tropical and cyclone frequency will increase the risk to the lives and livelihoods of coastal dwellers; 3) changes in rainfall will increase or decrease floods, droughts and fires, it would also translate into lack of water for domestic and commercial purposes; 4) increase in temperature is most likely to add to the lifestyle stress in both rural and urban areas and adversely affect crop production; and 5) changes in atmospheric chemistry would adversely affect certain crop production and marine ecosystems (Black et al., 2011:S8).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig1: Conceptual framework for drivers of migration (Source: Foresight, 2011: 9)

The preceding diagram shows a conceptual framework devised for the Foresight report and explains the five drivers of migration and likely impact of environment change on them. The figure also shows various barriers and facilitators to the movement which translate the drivers into outcomes. While environmental change directly affects environment drivers, it creates positive or negative changes in the impact of other drivers on migration. For example, floods, draughts or fire can reduce household income by adversely affecting crop production, livestock and fisheries (Black et al., 2011:S8). In such a scenario, households are likely to respond by sending one or more members to a distant area with different income variability patterns (due to less dependence on weather) to reduce the risk of consumption failure by diversifying income sources (Stark and Bloom, 1985:175; also see IOM, 2010). However, such migration would depend on the economic level of each household. Environment changes are more likely to affect the livelihood of poorest families and thus can either become migration driver or limit their resources to migrate. Complex interaction of migration driver translates into multi-causal effect, thus, change in one driver affects all. For example, if environment change creates disturbances in economic stability then this unstable system commands for policy changes. These changes or lack of them can stop or stimulate migration.

In an extreme example, Pakistan administration’s slow response to Cyclone Bhola in 1970, which claimed approximately 300,000 lives in erstwhile East Pakistan, coupled up with growing dissent over ethnic division instigated a major protest, ethnic conflict, genocide, mass migration, war and ultimately birth of the country Bangladesh (Roy, 2010:102; Reuveny, 2007: 662-3). In this scenario, no one factor could be attributed completely for the rise of popular movement and resultant mass migration from the country, however, all drivers collided to produce the result. In another example, there are recorded incidences of out migration from the villages of Indian state of Gujarat due to social pressure for marriage. Young male members or entire families are relocating to larger cities in the region due to lack of possibility of marriage, as no female wants to be wed in a village where she will have to walk five miles daily to fetch water (Pramar, 2013). The examples clearly demonstrate that environment change not only creates economic pressure but can also cause political, demographic and social situations commanding migration.

3. Likely outcomes of the effects of environment change on migration

According to Betts (2011:155), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was first to recognise the potential impact of climate change on human migration in 1990, when it noted that millions of people would likely be uprooted by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption. In later years, several scholars put the estimated figure of climate change migrants at 50 million by 2020 (Zelman quoted in Black et al., 2011:S3) and 200 million by 2050 (Myers in Black et al., 2011:S3), however, ‘sceptic’ scholars like Castle and Black disputed the direct causal link between climate change and migration. They rather emphasised on multiple drivers of movement which depended on individual’s adaptive abilities and socio-economic context (Betts, 2011:158). As Betts puts it, ‘the numbers will never be accurate because it is almost impossible to take into account all variables like human resilience and exact time and place of maximum impact of climate change’ (Betts, 2011:154). This lack of verifiable data has led to a scarcity of policy attention towards so-called climate refugees, ‘who for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad’ (IOM 2007:para 6 as cited in Betts, 2011:159). Foresight (2011) predicts that increasing threat to complex eco-system will continue to create a steady stream of migrants to next safe place. However, the report also argues that the next safe place could itself be even more environmentally sensitive area, which would put migrants in even worse condition. At the same time, climate change induced livelihood pressures could also limit the opportunities to migrate for the poorest people, leaving them trapped in life threatening situation (see Fig. 2).

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Fig2: Schematic representation of ‘trapped population’ (Source: Foresight, 2011: 11)

Overwhelming evidence by both Reuveny (2007) and Foresight (2011) concludes that while in face threat of economic and social stress instigated by deteriorating environment conditions, people choose to migrate, but not over a long distance. Generally, such migrants constitute of lower and moderate middle classes thus they would not have financial resources to travel greater distances. Such migrants generally tend to migrate to next safe place, which more often than not is internal and towards urban centres (Foresight, 2011:19). In cases of planned migration, social networks come into operation and one or more individuals from a household tend to move towards possible employment and housing arrangements (Massey et al., 1993:436), however, in case of unplanned migration, i.e., where environment induced economic stress compensates for lack of social connections, households can find themselves in a financially and environmentally worse situation (Foresight, 2011:19). In an example of planned migration, the evidence from study of environment induced emigration from mountain regions suggests that even when migrants cross borders for financial gain, they mostly end up in countries with limited resources or hazardous work conditions (Kollmair, 2011:21, 26). A sizeable number of Nepali workers are forced to migrate to Gulf countries due to deteriorating agricultural output and limited economic avenues within the country and end up doing 3D jobs - dirty, difficult and dangerous (Kollmair, 2011:22). These migrants are often excluded from any health, welfare or social benefits (Seddon, 2010:26). According to a research by two UK universities, half of the sampled migrants had health problems and at least a quarter of them had suffered from work-related accidents (Joshi, 2011:4).

The unplanned and forced migration often leads to conflict in areas of rehabilitation. Such as unemployment, ethnic conflict, fight for scarce resources, etc. According to Indian state officials, there are at least 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India (Gupta, 2012:149). While some are 1971 war refugees, many migrated over a span of time due to causalities and loss of livelihood during several high impact cyclones (See Reuveny, 2007:663). This mass migration has become reason of constant ethnic tension between indigenous people of Indian state Assam and Bangladeshi migrants, who have now become majority in the region. According to World Bank, during 1991-2008 the total number of causalities of this conflict crossed 30,000-mark. In 2012 alone, at least 77 people were killed and over 400,000 thousand were displaced over a month long violence in the state (IBN, 2012; Aljazeera, 2012). Similarly in case of forced evacuation such as floods or Tsunami, rehabilitation process can prove to be long, tedious and even unjust or corrupt. In a review of case studies from the rehabilitation process after 2004 Tsunami, Fernando and Punchihewa (2011: 11-20) found that the victims of Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and Indonesia faced issues like religious or caste based discrimination, corruption in housing allocation, lack of documentation and social issues like alienation from community identity and economic status.

Second possible outcome of environment induced migration is that people will migrate to even more environmentally sensitive zones. As mentioned above world’s 10% population already lives in the low-lying areas (2% of total land) because the coastal regions provide for 70% of total global ecosystem services (Costanza, 2011:4). This feature makes the coastward migration a most common phenomenon among people searching for employment opportunities. Coastal mega cities of developing countries in Asia have been increasing in size rapidly and are expected to receive vast amount of rural-urban migrant in near future. For example, Shanghai’s population increased from just over 6 million in 1970 to over 16 million in 2010 and is expected to rise to just over 20 million in 2025; similarly, Dhaka’s population increased from 1.4 million in 1970 to 14 million in 2010, and is expected to rise to 21 million in 2025. Even in normal circumstances this rate of expansion itself presents a huge set of operational challenges for cities, including housing provision and land-use planning (Foresight, 2011:19). This puts migrants at compound risk as they tend to live in high-density settlements prone to environmental risks and may not have financial, social or human resources to protect themselves from these risks (Foresight, 2011:19). Besides, increased density and reduced land due to sea-level rise increases the number of people in direct line climate catastrophes like hurricane, flood and typhoons - common occurrences in these regions (Costanza, 2011:14). Rural-urban migration in drylands could also be a health hazard for migrants. Beijing, the capital city of China, currently has 20 times more polluted air than the World Health Organisation’s recommended level due to increased industrial activity (Kaiman, 2014). Scientists have even compared the situation to nuclear winter and the government has declared a ‘war on pollution’ but still the city continues to grow at a rapid rate. China’s urbanisation rate is expected to touch 60% in 2018 (Chinadaily, 2013), and unfortunately among the policy induced rural-urban migrants there are at least six million people, who have been displaced due to natural disasters. Although moving from rural areas into cities is used as coping strategy against environmental risks, it also means being exposed to a different set of potential environmental hazards (Randall, 2013).

The third and final possible outcome of environment change’s effect on migration is that it can limit migration by exhausting financial, social or demographic resources to migrate (Black et al, 2011:S8). Environment change largely shrinks household income by reducing crop, livestock or fisheries productivity at a place or damage assets used in agriculture. A reduction in the reliability of income may therefore become an economic driver for migration, but may also increasingly limit the ability of individuals and households to migrate. Black et al., (2011:S8) argue that in such a scenario, the decision to migrate would largely depend on a family’s adaptive capabilities like alternative sources of income or social connections to move. Therefore an environmental change will have a different impact on migration in different parts of a community. And the poorest are likely to be affected the most. In a study funded by European Commission (EACH-FOR), people living on flood prone Mekong Delta in Vietnam revealed that despite enormous threat to the delta, they preferred living along the river banks because their livelihood is dependent on it. Being landless, the majority depended on daily wage labour acquired through the existent social networks, and they were afraid that migration to anywhere would break the networks and their income insurance; on the other hand, wealthier inhabitants expressed the ability to move in face of a calamity (Dun, 2011:207). Ability to adapt to hazardous circumstances by migration or by other means also vastly varies by age and gender. In the case of rehabilitation of Indian Tsunami victims, it was found that single mothers were largely excluded from any representation and benefits (Fernando and Punchihewa, 2011: 7,14). In 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, mortality was much higher among young children (26%) and women over the age of 60 (40%) because of their inability to access cyclone shelters and lack of endurance in hazardous situations (Penning-Rowsell, 2012:S47). Thus, it can be concluded that environment change, both rapid and slow-onset can aggravate affect economic, social, demographic, political and environmental drivers of migration and at the same time adversely affect people’s ability to move in absence of economic and social alternatives and demographic strengths.

4. Migration - problem or solution?

Migration is seen as a problem in the international scenario. However, in most of the cases such as environment induced migration, it acts as the coping mechanism (Betts, 2011:156; Tacoli, 2011:14) people adopt to survive otherwise drastic fate caused by direct environment impact, economic deprivation, social conflict or resource inadequacy like water scarcity or lack of food security. Thus, it is crucial for national and global regimes to change their perspective and see migration as a solution to environment change caused issues rather than part of the problem. For example, in Nepal farmers who opt to work as labourers in various Asian countries due to drop in agricultural produce send back remittances to support their families and are now responsible for 25.3% of country’s GDP (Kollmair, 2011:12; World Bank Data, 2014). Crucially, even in drastic circumstances, environment refugees do not have any legitimate claim for protection because cross-border movement as a result of natural disasters and the effects of climate change does not come under any UNHCR’s standard reasons for seeking asylum (McAdam 2011:5). The fact that it is highly difficult to differentiate environment refugees from others does not make the process easy. However, this does not imply that migration is the only adaptive strategy to climate change. Policy makers need to opt for multiple strategies simultaneously to minimise the adverse output of environment change on humans. In order to address the above discussed issues, policy makers need to: 1) focus on reducing the influence of environment change on migration both by creating better climate policies and creating distance between large number of economic and social actors from environment change; 2) planning for migration response in advance and facilitating movement and infrastructures for migrants safe transition and rehabilitation; and 3) recognising that migration is inherently a solution rather than a problem and adopt relocation as adaptation (Foresight, 2011:15). International governance bodies also need to fill the gaps for those displaced by environment change and help countries manage more conflict-free transitions (Foresight, 2011:17). The list presented here is not exhaustive but covers the main policy actions that require urgent attention across the globe to ensure that basic human rights of food, water, shelter and life are not stolen away from people (McAdam, 2011:17).

5. Conclusion

After almost three decades of debate over the validity of the environment change induced migration, the extensive Foresight report (2011) has provided with the empirical evidence that environment change not only causes direct displacement but also interacts with economic, social, demographic, political and environmental drivers of migration to aggravate or dampen their influence. This essay, on the basis of the report, argued that likely outcome of the environment change on migration could take three manifestations, people will migrate or will be forced to migrate; people will migrate to even more environmentally sensitive zones and people will not be able to migrate due to exhaustion of financial, social and/or demographic resources necessary for relocation. The paper further discusses the possible ramifications of unplanned and forced movement and plight of those who stay behind. In the end, policy suggestions for better migration management and adoption of migration as adaptation technic rather than a problem have been discussed briefly. The bottom line here is neither environment change nor migration are going to stop in foreseeable future, thus, it would be apt for governance bodies to start focussing on embracing it rather than fighting it.

6. Bibliography

Aljazeera (2012), ‘India's PM promises help to riot victims’, Aljazeera website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Betts, A. (2011), Global migration governance, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Black, R., Adger, W. N., Arnell, N. W., Dercon, S., Geddes, A. and Thomas, D. (2011), ‘The effect of environmental change on human migration’, Global Environmental Change, 21, pp. S3-S11.

Chinadaily (2013), ‘China's urbanization rate to hit 60% by 2018’, Chinadaily website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Costanza, R., Kubiszewski, I., Roman, J. and Sutton, P. (2011), ‘Changes in ecosystem services and migration in low-lying coastal areas over the next 50 years’, Commissioned for Foresight Project, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Dun, O. (2011), ‘Migration and displacement triggered by floods in the Mekong Delta’, International Migration, 49(s1), pp. 200-223.

Gupta, C. and Sharma, M. (2012), Contested coastlines: Fisherfolk, nations and borders in South Asia, Routledge.

Fernando, N. and Punchihewa, A.G. (2011), ‘Lessons learnt from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami’, Commissioned for Foresight Project, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Foresight (2011) Migration and Global Environment Change: Final Project Report, London: The Government Office for Science, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

IBN (2012), ‘Assam violence: Four more bodies found, toll rises to 77’, IBNLive website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

IOM (2010), World Migration Report 2010: The Future of Migration, Geneva: International Organisation for Migration.

Joshi, S., Simkhada, P., and Prescott, G. J. (2011), ‘Health problems of Nepalese migrants working in three Gulf countries’, BMC international health and human rights, 11 (3), available at:, accessed on: 20 May 2014.

Kaiman(2014), ‘China's toxic air pollution resembles nuclear winter, say scientists’, The Guardian website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Kollmair, M. and Banerjee, S. (2011), ‘Drivers of migration in mountainous regions of the developing world: a review’, Commissioned for Foresight Project, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Massey, D. S., Arango, J., Hugo, G., Kouaouci, A., Pellegrino, A., & Taylor, J. E. (1993), ‘Theories of international migration: a review and appraisal’, Population and development review, pp. 431-466.

McAdam, J. (2011), Climate change displacement and international law: complementary protection standards, Geneva: UNHCR, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Nat Geo, ‘Sea Level Rise’, National Geographic website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Penning-Rowsell, E. C., Sultana, P., and Thompson, P. M. (2013), ‘The ‘last resort’? Population movement in response to climate-related hazards in Bangladesh’, Environmental Science & Policy, 27, pp. S44-S59.

Piguet, E. (2010), ‘Linking climate change, environmental degradation, and migration: a methodological overview’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(4), pp. 517-524.

Pramar (2013), ‘Girls ditch grooms in parched Gujarat villages’, TOI website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Randall, A. (2013), ‘Climate change driving migration into China’s vulnerable cities’, Chinadialogue website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

Reuveny, R. (2007), ‘Climate change-induced migration and violent conflict’, Political Geography, 26 (6), pp. 656-673.

Roy, R. (2010), South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh, Amsterdam University Press.

Seddon, D., Adhikari, J. and Gurung, G. (2002), ‘Foreign Labor Migration and the Remittance Economy of Nepal’, Critical Asian Studies, 34(1), pp. 19-40.

Stark, O. and Bloom, D. E. (1985), ‘The new economics of labor migration’, The American Economic Review, 75 (2), pp. 173–178.

Tacoli, C. (2011), ‘The links between environmental change and migration: a livelihoods approach’, Commissioned for Foresight Project, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

UNCCD, ‘Desertification Land Degradation & Drought (DLDD) - Some Global Facts & Figures’, UNCCD website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

World Bank Data, ‘Personal remittances, received (% of GDP)’, World Bank website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

World Bank, ‘Violent Conflict Dataset 1991-2008’, World Bank website, available at:, accessed on: 22 May 2014.

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Likely effects of environment change on migration through an insight in Asia. Migration, displacement, desperation and devastation
University of Sheffield  (Department of Politics)
The Politics of Global Migration
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Climate change, migration, displacement, ethnic conflict, social and demographic changes, global governance, asia, bangaldesh, Sri Lanka, Tsunami, India, Assam, drought, flood, hurricane, rural-urban migration, urbanisation, slum dwellers, health hazards, environment
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Arshi Aggarwal (Author), 2014, Likely effects of environment change on migration through an insight in Asia. Migration, displacement, desperation and devastation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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