Skip to main content

Changing the debate on migration and environmental change

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Climate Change, Development Debates

The UK's Foresight programme is intended to help government think systematically about the future. It helps to improve how we use science and technology within government and society. It does this by drawing on well-tested, scientifically valid techniques to inform those responsible for developing policy and strategy in government.

The Foresight Migration and Global Environmental Change project examined how profound changes in environmental conditions, such as flooding, drought and rising sea levels will influence and interact with patterns of global human migration over the next 50 years. It involved around 350 leading experts and stakeholders from 30 countries across the world, and more than 70 papers and other reviews of the state-of-the-art of diverse areas of science were commissioned to inform the analysis.

Here, Professor Sir John Beddington shares his thoughts around the report's findings.

When we published Foresight's latest report on Migration and Global Environmental Change three months ago, it was already clear that there was much that needed to be done to improve and in some cases challenge international understanding on these critical issues.

Typically, the common belief has been that environmental change is going to cause mass migration, with people fleeing vulnerable areas in their millions with potentially devastating effects. However, the Foresight report explains, as does this new video published today, that the challenges facing governments and communities will be much more complex, and will have both humanitarian and international ramifications.

Rethinking the challenge

What our analysis shows is that rather than fleeing from risk areas, millions of people are actually going to continue to migrate towards environmentally vulnerable situations. In fact, by 2060 there could be nearly 200 million more people living on floodplains in coastal cities in Africa and Asia, facing flooding, water shortages and other major hazards.

The second trend however is perhaps more troubling. The report shows that it is the people who are not able to migrate, and are trapped in areas of environmental threat, who will be a major concern. For many millions and particularly for the poorest of the poor, this will be the more likely scenario. Migration is expensive and as environmental conditions erode people's livelihoods, building the resources necessary to relocate safely when needed will become increasingly difficult.

Pushed to crisis point, being 'trapped' leaves communities with few options - they - either stay and suffer, or are displaced in dangerous and often disruptive conditions.

Reframing the solution

The question we have been presenting at the UN, the World Bank and the Global Forum on Migration and Development since the publication of the report in October therefore is: given this more nuanced understanding, what can we do about these challenges?

What has come up time and again in these meetings and events is how important it is to focus on finding effective ways to help communities become more resilient in the face of environmental change, thereby averting humanitarian disasters before they happen.  It is not surprising that this in line with a key conclusion of DFID's Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (the "Ashdown Review"), published last year.

What's interesting about the Foresight report, however, is that it shows that migration itself can be transformative for communities. From Burkina Faso to Bangladesh, migration - often at a local or regional level - is already helping people find new sources of income, and is thereby helping people cope with, and potentially build safe routes out of, dangerous environmental conditions.

The importance of DFID's work

The answer therefore is not to try and stop all migration, but to work to reduce people's vulnerability to environmental risks, whether they are moving into one of the world's rapidly growing cities or staying in rural areas. This means both a more strategic approach to urban planning which prepares cities for these trends, and international adaptation and development policies that take account of migration opportunities as well as challenges.

These are challenging goals in difficult times, but what is certain is that DFID's work in these areas - and on climate adaptation and humanitarian assistance more broadly - has never been more important.

As ever, I am keen to hear your views. You can comment here on the blog and you can also follow me, UKsciencechief and Foresightgovuk on Twitter.

Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British Government.

UK aid is helping millions of poor people to protect their livelihoods from the effects of climate change. Find out more about DFID's work to help poor countries adapt.

You can see how UK aid is changing lives and helping the world's poorest people on our Facebook page.

Sharing and comments

Share this page