The Daily Times
BY CHARLES MPAKA
19:12:52 - 20 July 2009
If we cannot prevent floods from occurring, if we cannot stop climate change impacts, we must not prevent people from migrating. What we need to do is to create conditions for the refugees to benefit from their running away. CHARLES MPAKA writes.
When floods hit, people flee. When land becomes a desert and agricultural communities lose their means of survival, some people will often move elsewhere for a new life.
To run away from climate change-related disasters is a popular response around the world. It is natural, in fact. For that, terms such as ‘environmental refugees’ and ‘climate change-induced migration’ are becoming common.
Climate change will remain part of human life on earth even for the entire century. But the world will not live all that long with hands on the head, crying for God’s help. Mitigation efforts will have to be intensified. So should adaptation mechanisms, one of which should be to look at the possible gains that could be gotten out of some of the many disasters to come and from responses such as migration.
Some activists estimate that by 2050, the number of people that will have been forced to move primarily because of climate change impacts will have been between 200 million and 1 billion.
It sounds alarming. And that is the tone in which climate change is preached: so that people are alarmed at the probability of a very bleak life on earth if they keep up with reckless green house gas emissions and rampant environmental degradation.
Cecilia Tacoli, Senior Researcher at International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), argues that these mass refugee statistics, are ‘alarmist predictions’ and are open to consideration. But she does not deny the question of human migration because of climate change.
“What we do know is that mobility and migration are key responses to environmental and non-environmental transformations and pressures,” says Tacoli in a paper prepared for UNFPA last month.
According to her, such responses should be a basis for measures of coping with climate change. The first thing to be done should be to look at migration from a positive viewpoint: that migration can help solve the problem of climate change or mitigate its impacts.
“This requires a radical change in policy-makers’ perceptions of migration as a problem, and a better understanding of the role of local and national institutions in supporting and accommodating mobility,” Tacoli says.
Human migration, climate-caused or otherwise, is often seen by governments and institutions as a problem and therefore a subject of prevention strategies.
Malawi has in the past decade seen an increase in urban population as people move from rural areas. The causes for such movements vary, including those that are climate change-related. Climate change influences have reasonably affected negatively the productivity of agriculture lands in rural areas, forcing some people to seek alternative means of earning a living in the cities and in other countries.
In response, government has in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) the programme of integrated rural development. The programme intends to establish self-contained rural growth centres as one way of preventing people from going to stay in urban centres.
The strategy makes sense especially when considered against deteriorating standards of sanitation, increasing crime, stretched health facilities and sorry housing conditions attributed to population pressure in urban centres.
But it is also strategic that similar massive investments be made in the urban centres where people flock to. Climate change has come upon the earth. Droughts and floods will come. Hurricanes shall terrorise people. Agriculture lands will be washed away. A hundred billion trees planted today in the catchment areas of the Shire River will not stop the floods from occurring in the Lower Shire in the next 20 to 30 years.
Shutting out all green house gas emission outlets of the world will not stop the disasters over many years in future because much damage has already been done. That is why scientists say that climate change-related impacts being experienced today are not outcomes of the present day environmental hazardous practices. They are results of activities of hundreds of years ago.
This calls for governments to develop strategies that will accommodate migration, not just those that prevent or restrict it. They should include mechanisms that would enable the environmental refugees to make gains from some forms of disasters.
Commentators have given the example of floods. Floods have caused loss of life and property and much distress to people of Nsanje and Chikwawa for many years. Balaka, Mangochi, Salima, Phalombe, Zomba and Karonga have been added on to the list, some of them just recently.
But floods bring with them fertile soils and water. When the currents have died, the refugees can go back and cultivate their field. Government should thus invest in helping such people work in their fields, instead of just dumping them in a ‘foreign’ community and leave them to find the way out on their own.
Migration should not necessarily be a problem. Tacoli says there is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, together with income diversification, is an important measure to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks.
“In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change,” she says.
She argues that policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important not only for purposes of coping with climate change impacts but also in achieving broader development goals. Migration and mobility should therefore not be seen as disruptive and requiring control and restrictive measures, she says.
“What is needed urgently is a radical change in perceptions of migration, and a better understanding of the role that local and national institutions need to play in making mobility be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem” she says.
The migrant class are a human resource to be developed so they can participate in dealing with climate change. In its 2007/08 Human Development Report entitled Fighting climate change: Human Solidarity in a divided world, UNDP describes human development as a sound foundation for adaptation to climate change.
The organisation supports measures that promote equitable growth and diversification of livelihoods, increase opportunities in health and education, provide social and economic protection to the vulnerable groups and improve on disaster management.
“That is why climate change adaptation planning should not be seen as a new branch of public policy but as an integral part of wider strategies for poverty reduction and human development,” says UNDP.
The risks arising from seeing climate change-related migration as part of the problem include that it would result in inappropriate policies that would do little to protect the rights of those most vulnerable to climate change, says IIED.
Those that flee the disaster prone areas for instance to urban centres could serve as sources of support to communities back home. They could be a means of rehabilitating fallen agriculture in the village and maintenance of others affected by climate change impacts. That is only if their destination is prepared to provide them with development structures which they can use to regain their life again and be productive.
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