Climate Change, Poverty, and Migration, Part 2: The Evidence

by Quentin Wodon

How devastating are weather schocks associated with climate change for the populations affected? Are the populations able to cope with and adapt to the shocks? Do they migrate away from the affected areas? These are the questions that were considered in two recent studies, one for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and the other for the Sundarbans in South Asia. The book for the MENA region was published last year and is available electronically free of charge here. The book on the Sundarbans was published last month – it is not yet open access, but I received quite a few copies, so if you would like a print copy, please send me an email with your address through the Contact Me page.

Recall that the argument outlined in the first post in this series has three parts: (1) households often suffer from large losses when affected by weather shocks; (2) they have limited ways to cope and adapt; and yet (3) hosueholds affected more do not have higher migration rates away from the areas. In this post, I will share  evidence that backs up these conclusions. In the next post, I will discuss implications of the findings for humanitarian organizations and service clubs.

Impact of Weather Shocks on Households

Surveys were implemented in climate-affected areas of the MENA region and in the Sundarbans. In the MENA surveys, households could identify droughts, floods, storms, mudslides, excessive heat, excessive rain, pest infestation, crop and livestock diseases, and other events as having affected them. In the Sundarbans, the questionnaire identified cyclones, droughts, floods, and other events. Almost all households said that they had been affected by adverse weather events in the five MENA countries as well as in the Sundarbans (the exception was Egypt where the proportion was smaller, but still above two thirds). When asked which type of adverse event had the largest negative consequences for them, households in the MENA countries cited droughts first, followed by excessive heat and floods. In the Sundarbans, households cited mostly the cyclones.

In the MENA region, more than half of the respondents said that changes in weather patterns had led to a loss of crops, and more than a third reported a loss of income. About a fourth reported a loss of livestock. Poorer households were more likely to be affected than richer households, which is not surprising given that poorer households are more likely to be farmers and rely on rainfed agriculture. In the Sundarbans, more than a third of households declared that their dwelling had been completely destroyed by cyclones. Another third said that their dwelling had been partially destroyed. All these losses are rather large, showing that the populations in the areas surveyed are highly vulnerable to extreme weather shocks that indeed have dramatic consequences.

Ability to Cope and Adapt

How do households cope with losses generated by weather shocks? Questions were asked about what households did in the recent past and what they would do in the future in case of a new shock. In the MENA region, almost two thirds of households declared that they have used or would use their savings to cope. Close half have sold or would sell assets, have asked or would as for loans, and have sold or would sell livestock. More than a third have withdrawn or would withdraw their children from school. In the Sundarbans, responses were similar, but the proportion of households declaring that they had withdrawn their children from school or would do so in case of a new shock was smaller. Overall, these coping strategies make sense, but they also show how households often must take desperate measures – such as selling productive assets – to survive. Such coping strategies may have long term negative consequences for the ability of households or their children to emerge from poverty. In addition, in a separate survey for Morocco households declared that they had not been able to recover from losses associated with the weather shocks years after the events.

The data also suggest that households are often not able to implement adaptation strategies to deal with extreme weather shocks and a changing environment. For example, some twenty different adaptation strategies were listed in the MENA questionnaires, and only a minority of households declared implementing these strategies. Community and government programs were also scarce, with the exception of a few government-led safety net programs in the Sundarbans.

Decisions to Migrate

One would expect that if households are repeatedly affected by weather shocks, and if they have limited ways to cope and adapt, younger household members would migrate away. The evidence however suggests that households more severely affected by the shocks are not much more likely to send members away than other households.

  • When households are asked in the surveys about the reasons why some of their members migrate temporarily or permanently, reasons directly related to climatic factors such as droughts, floods, or cyclones do not come up much –socio-economic factors, such as better opportunities for employment at the place of destination, are cited much more often.
  • Regression analysis suggests that the impact of perceptions regarding changing climatic conditions as well as actual weather shocks on migration is small. Households who perceive worsening climatic conditions do not have much higher permanent migration rates among their members than households who do not perceive such changing climatic conditions to the same extent. The same holds for the severity of the impact of whether shocks on households – temporary migration is affected (more severely affected households have more temporary migrants), but this is less the case for permanent migration.
  • Analysis of census data suggests that “push” factors such as climatic conditions at the place of origin (temperature and rainfall) affect migration patterns only in a limited way, with again socio-economic “pull” factors at the place of destination playing a much larger role in migration movements.
  • In the MENA region, qualitative focus groups help explain why permanent migration does not seem to be higher amomg households affected more severely by extreme weather events and changes in the climate: many migrants are simply not doing very well at their place of destination.

Overall, these various strands of evidence provide back-up for the argument that many household members in climate-affected areas may be unable or unwilling to migrate away, at least under present conditions. Many households may be trapped where they are with all the risks that this entails as climatic conditions continue to worsen in the future. In the last post in this series, I will discuss the implications of such findings.

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