The real wave of refugees is yet to come

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Climate change in the Sahel is making it increasingly hard to make a living. [Scott S. Brown/Shutterstock]

Climate change in Africa is going to be a much stronger driving force for mass migration than political turmoil, writes Tara Shirvani.

Tara Shirvani is an infrastructure specialist at the World Bank.

While Europe is hopelessly grappling with the ongoing waves of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa the solutions outlined by our European leadership signal how we still presume that mass-migration phenomena are mainly driven by civil unrest, dictatorships and violence. Short-term immigration policies are more designed to calm the “tempest in a teapot” and keep the refugee problems outside the European backyard rather than create long-term sustainable solutions.

What this approach overlooks is the scientific evidence that the largest trigger for future mass migration will not be political unrest in the developing world but rather climate change which has the potential to affect migration patterns as a threat multiplier. The most famous projection came from Norman Meyers who proclaimed that by 2050, 200 million people would be displaced due to climate change. This trend would be irrespective of the scaled up action on low carbon discussed at the UN climate negotiations, as the world is already locked into a mean 1.5°C warming scenario. Following this trend it would mean that the associated impacts from extremes and slow onset climate events are likely to translate into a manifold increase in displacement and migration.

Climatic change can influence migration via a variety of drivers, mainly through the consequences of increased drought and desertification, rising sea levels, more intense and frequent storms, and competition for scarce resources. Economically speaking the consequences will be substantial as the Stern Review has predicted that under a likely baseline climate change scenario South East Asia will experience a 9% loss in GDP and Africa and Middle East a 7% loss by 2100. Under the high climate change scenario, the cost of climate change could rise to losses of 13% and 10% in GDP, respectively.

Climate change as a threat multiplier will also increase tensions around land and natural resources, resulting in direct links with migration and conflict. Each standard-deviation towards warmer weather and more extreme precipitation is predicted to result in a 4% increase in interpersonal violence and 14% in intergroup conflict.

In the Sahel region, an arid belt of land stretching from Senegal to Sudan, nomadic migration has always been a way of life. The recent climate changes in rainfall patterns and rising temperature levels however have led to climate displacement of large populations. According to regional humanitarian organisations, about 30% of households in part of Burkina Faso’s Sahel zone have moved away in the past 20 years because they could no longer survive.

Already one in four Africans, or around 220 million people, are undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa due to a lack of sufficient or nutritious food. This number could increase to 330 million by 2050 if appropriate adaptation measures are not taken to help the continent cope with the challenge. In the Sahel belt, as food sources and grain harvests which used to feed families for almost a year now run out after five months, people are forced to find other ways to survive.

Some sell animals or go into debt, becoming poorer and more vulnerable with each passing season. Sooner or later, once they have exhausted their assets, many have no choice but to leave their villages. As a last resort they seek out more productive farmlands to the south, or move to fast-growing urban slums. What is propelling people to move is not so much the pull of economic opportunity as the push of a changing climate.

Climate-resilient agriculture is an example of an integrated adaptation measure that addresses the link between food security and climate change. With over 200 million hectares of uncultivated land in Africa suitable for productive use in climate-smart ways, climate responses can in fact be linked to economic development strategies.

Climate-smart agriculture seeks to increase sustainable productivity and strengthen farmers’ resilience, whilst reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It includes proven practical techniques — such as intercropping, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock management, agroforestry, and improved water management. To achieve all of this African farmers will need new innovative practices such as better weather forecasting, more resilient food crops and risk insurance.

Without action in agriculture and on other economic fronts, climate change will erode Africa’s hard-won development achievements, endanger its prospects for further growth and push future migration waves to unprecedented levels.

This vital topic was further discussed at the 2017 Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Paris on 6 October 2017 where I was member of a panel which was discussing how transport connectivity can act as a crucial puzzle piece at the interface of climate change and future migration waves.

This article is part of our ‘Daring to lead’ series’, highlighting voices from the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society Global Meeting, in Paris, on 5-6 October. You can see our full programme and current list of speakers for the event at the Women’s Forum website #haltoher

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not express the views of the World Bank, its board of executive directors, or the governments they represent.