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Understanding the Climate-induced Migration in South Asia


Energy Review, Vol 5. Issue 03. 2023

In a recent address to the UN Security Council, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that rising sea levels would create a “mass exodus” on a “biblical scale”. While climate-induced migration has emerged as a significant global challenge, the intricacies of climate migration are often not understood. With South Asia set to bear the brunt of global heating fallouts, it is imperative to note the realities and multifaceted nature of climate-induced migration in the region to chart the way forward.

While most research on climate-induced migration is focused on developing countries, public discourse is often framed by the global North, with popular narratives harping on cross-border movements. In reality, most climate migration trends are internal, and according to the World Bank, there could be 40 million internal climate migrants within South Asia in the next 25 years or so.

Climate-induced migration can be short- or long-term. While natural disasters like floods and hurricanes can lead to short-term displacement, slow-onset events like rising sea levels and desertification can drive permanent migration from impacted regions. India Migration Now’s research confirms that migration is a multi-causal, expensive endeavour, and often, those with the greatest vulnerability to climate change lack the resources to successfully move to more stable regions.

Understanding the nuances and the specific context

Migration due to climate change is often viewed as a last resort, a failure of developmental policy, but in South Asia, migration has long been used as a coping strategy for weather and climate events. The region already has strong patterns of seasonal, crop cycle-related migration, which in turn impact livelihoods. The decision to move to less climate-vulnerable regions depends on various social, natural, and financial factors.

For instance, caste and economic hierarchy, social segregation of the labour market, and discrimination against historically marginalised groups influence the decision to migrate. Climate migration also acts as a “threat multiplier” when it interacts with existing vulnerabilities of age, gender, and livelihoods, generating a complex spectrum of climate-vulnerable people.

Disaster-prone areas of Uttarakhand have witnessed a mass exodus to nearby cities in search of jobs, leaving behind ghost villages. In contrast, flood-prone regions of Assam see residents staying put due to limited income prospects in cities. Additionally, climate-induced displacement is rampant in Pakistan, where sea-water intrusion and lack of freshwater in the Indus delta have forced coastal communities in the country’s southeastern Sindh region to migrate to the fishing villages of Karachi city.

Way forward

Here are three ways to begin thinking about climate migration in South Asia:

  • Make climate migration a policy area

Climate migration needs to be studied as a policy area on its own, and in conjunction with various related policy and climate adaptation measures. Evidence from South Asia suggests that climate migration may largely take place internally, which highlights the importance of understanding internal migration flows in order to implement and evaluate climate adaptation policies and strategies. The Inter State Migrant Policy Index (IMPEX) by IMN is a case in point. It evaluates policy areas relevant to the integration of internal migrants and is based on evidence on record.

  • Study migration as an adaptive strategy

Climate policy must focus as much on adaptation strategies as on mitigation. Local and indigenous knowledge can provide insights into the ground realities of climate-vulnerable areas, which in turn can help build a framework for climate adaptation. In recent years, migration has been championed as a component of climate adaptation, as it also affords at-risk households new livelihoods and a chance to build their resilience and agency. Sri Lanka’s National Adaptation Plan is a case in point.

  • Foster more dialogues at the local level

It is important to foster dialogues between different stakeholders to understand the diverse perspectives and experiences of climate-vulnerable populations. This includes dialogues between policymakers, researchers, civil society organisations, migrants and displaced people etc. Such dialogues can help generate a better understanding of the drivers of climate migration, the factors that affect migration decisions, and the needs of climate-vulnerable populations. A good way to involve local communities is by decentralising climate migration policy and plans.

In conclusion, while these methods are not exhaustive or without their implementation challenges, they outline the crucial reframing needed to understand climate migration. As South Asia continues to be impacted by this phenomenon, regional and national actors must consider the complexity of climate migration beyond policies that aim to restrict or forcefully relocate vulnerable populations, in favour of a regional approach to climate policy that recognises migration as a means of climate adaptation and resilience.

(Nidhi Menon is a research associate at India Migration Now, a migration data, research and advocacy organisation. Pooja Bhatia is part of the editorial and communications team at India Migration Now. An earlier version of this article was originally published in Eco-Business, on March 8th 2023) ■□■


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