Climate change, Desertification, and Migration (Towards Recognition)

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Climate change, Desertification, and Migration: Connecting the dots

Posted by Kayly Ober

While climate change and desertification can often go hand in hand, each one able to exacerbate the other, the role these two factors play in migration is starting to gain increasing prominence in research circles.

“When it comes to climate change we speak more on the impact of it on environmental degradation,” said Dina Ionesco, Policy Officer at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). “And then it is the impacts of this environmental degradation on migration.

“We speak also on how migration has a climate change impact so we cover the full circle.”

Often referred to as ‘climate change refugees’ – although IOM steer away from this term and instead talk of ‘environmental migrants’ – once unheard of they are quickly becoming a phenomenon people are all to familiar with.

Just last month the Asian Development Bank warned that there could have been as many as 42 million environmental migrants over the last two years in Asia – as a result of extreme weather events.

And current estimates predict that by the middle of the century the world could see anywhere between 25 million and 1 billion climate related migrants.

The IOM defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reason of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”.

But it is very rare climate change will be the only reason a person or groups of persons will leave their home. Climate change is seen as the threat multiplier.

Where a region is under social pressures, is experiencing conflict or political upheaval, or where increasing pressure is being put on infrastructure or resources, climate change – in the form of longer term shifts (i.e. higher temperatures and drought) or shorter changes (i.e. extreme weather events) – can be the final push for many communities.

“Yes climate change is impacting people’s mobility but it is one factor and migration is what we call a multi-factorial phenomenon,” says Ionesco.

“It is very difficult to say when it is just environment which is the main driver and when it is climate change that is the main driver. Very often climate change has an impact on people’s way of living, on their livelihoods, on their local economic and social context and that leads to migration as a response.”

Desertification induced migration in the Sahel

The Sahel – situated in North West Africa – consists of 17 countries including Niger, Chad, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso.

The region is home to around 309 million people and the population is growing on an average of 3% per year.

Plagued with conflict, political turmoil and social crises, the Sahel’s natural resources – on which around 80% of the population rely – are under increasing pressure.

Around 70% of the region’s population lives in rural areas and relies on farming – particularly subsistence farming – for their livelihoods and agriculture accounts for a significant share of the countries’ GDP, food needs, employment and export revenue.

And when it comes to climate change, the Sahel is on the front line. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted the region will be most vulnerable to future climate fluctuations and many effects are already being felt.



Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.