Climate Change, Poverty, and Migration, Part 1: A Major Risk

by Quentin Wodon

Members of service clubs involved in international projects (global grants in the case of Rotary), as well as those interested in development and poverty eradication more generally, need to be aware of broad trends affecting the livelihood of the populations they are trying to serve.

In this series of three posts, I will share results from recent research on climate change, poverty, and migration. In this first post, I will outline a basic argument about the risk that the poor may not be willing or able to leave areas affected by the extreme weather events that climate change will exacerbate in the future. In the second post, I will provide evidence to back up this argument from two regions: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Sundarbans in South Asia. Finally, I will discuss in the third post the implications of the research for policies and programs. For those interested, the details of the analysis are available in two books, one on the MENA region published last year (open access), and the other on the Sundarbans published last month.

Let’s start with the big picture. Climate change is one of the most significant threats faced by the developing world (see for example the Turn Down the Heat reports). By the end of this century, global mean annual temperatures may increase by 4°C.  In many countries climate change will manifest itself through reduced rainfall, greater seasonal temperature variability, a rise in sea levels, and a higher frequency of extreme weather events. These events constitute threats to people’s ability to continue to live where they are living today, their economic security, and political stability.

Declining precipitation will affect the availability and usage of water, causing agricultural productivity to decrease and poverty to rise. Climate change will also lead to a higher likelihood of extreme temperatures, floods, droughts, and cyclones, depending on the geographic area affected, and thereby risks of substantial displacement as well as deteriorating environmental conditions. How climate change will affect specific regions remains debated. But threats to the MENA region – the first area considered here – include more severe droughts and floods as well as rising temperatures and water scarcity. In the Sundarbans, the second area that I will consider, threats include a sea level rise and more frequent and severe cyclones.

Do households living in climate-affected areas in both regions believe that changes in climate patterns and the environment are taking place? To what extent have households been affected by extreme weather events and what has been the impact of these events on them? What are the mechanisms that households use to cope and the strategies that they rely upon to adapt? Do households benefit from community and government programs that can help them cope and adapt? Are they warned ahead of time of weather shocks? To what extent do remittances reach households living in climate-poor areas and what is their impact on poverty and human development indicators? Finally, to what extent are perceived changes in the climate and weather shocks leading to more temporary and permanent migration? These are the questions I will explore.

But first, what does the literature suggest? A recent Foresight report suggests that while environmental change will lead to an increase in migration, because of the complexity of so-called “push” and “pull” factors involved in migration decisions, in most cases it will not be feasible to identify “pure” environmental migrants. The report also suggests that some vulnerable groups may be either unwilling or unable to migrate away from affected areas, among others due to the cost of migration and the fact that environmental change and weather shocks may result in large losses in income and assets, rendering migration unaffordable. Thus, some population groups may well be trapped in climate-affected areas with progressively deteriorating conditions for their livelihood.

In order to explore the relationship between climate change, extreme weather shocks, and migration, we implemented at the World Bank new households surveys in areas affected by weather shocks and changing climatic conditions in seven countries: Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen. The five MENA countries were chosen in order to be illustrative of the region as a whole, with some countries affected mostly and severely by droughts, others by both milder droughts and floods, and still others less affected until now

While the MENA countries are affected mostly by droughts, and to a lower extent floods, the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India (West Bengal) are affected by cyclones, sea water rises, and salinity intrusion in arable land. The contexts in which households are affected by changing climatic conditions and extreme weather events are thus very different in the MENA and South Asia regions. But as it turned out, while circumstances and contexts differ, many of the findings were similar in the two sets of countries. The main conclusions from the analysis can be summarized along three main points as follows:

  • The areas surveyed tend to be repeatedly exposed to weather shocks. Households do perceive a worsening of their environment in terms of the frequency and severity of those shocks. Most households in the areas surveyed have personally been affected negatively and substantially by those shocks, in terms mostly of losses of crops, income, and livestock in the MENA region, and losses in dwellings in the Sundarbans. The poor in both regions typically suffer the most.
  • The ability of households to cope with those extreme weather events and the losses in income, crops, or dwellings that they cause is limited. Relatively few households engage in medium- and long-term adaptation strategies, and remittances, while useful, do not necessarily reach climate-affected areas more than other areas. Support received from communities and government programs is limited, with the exception of safety nets in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Finally the extent to which households are warned ahead of time of imminent shocks differs between areas.
  • As a result of limited ways to cope and adapt, temporary and permanent migration could represent a strategy for household to deal with difficult climatic conditions and extreme weather shocks. The data suggest that today temporary migration is indeed used by affected households to cope and adapt. However the share of the observed temporary migration that can be directly attributed to climatic conditions tends to be small and the link between climatic conditions and permanent migration is even weaker. Essentially, whether this is due to an attachment to their area of origin or a lack of good options at destination for migrants, households who are affected the most by poor climatic conditions and weather shocks do not appear to be sending members away permanently much more than other households living in the same areas but affected less by those shocks. This does not mean that in the future climate-induced migration may not be much higher.

This basic argument, if valid, has implications for development policy in climate-affected areas, and likewise it has implications for the types of projects that service club organizations should implement in those areas. In the next post in the series, I will provide more details on the empirical evidence about the argument outlined above. In the third post, I will discuss implications of this research for development policies and programs, including for service clubs.

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