It is now increasingly recognized that environmental degradation and climate change are major drivers in both forced and voluntary migration, and that this trend is set to continue and substantially increase in scale in decades to come.
Poverty, failing ecosystems, vulnerability to natural hazards and gradual climate-driven environmental changes are all linked to migration. Indeed it is expected that climate change will significantly affect migration in three distinct ways. First, the effects of warming and drying in some regions will reduce agricultural potential and undermine “ecosystem services” such as clean water and fertile soil. Second, the increase in extreme weather events – in particular, heavy precipitation and resulting flash or river floods in tropical regions – will affect ever more people and generate mass displacement. Finally, sea-level rise will permanently destroy extensive and highly productive low-lying coastal areas that are home to millions of people who will have to relocate permanently.
While the consequences of mass migration are not de facto negative, its main impacts overwhelmingly are. These include escalating humanitarian crises, rapid urbanization and associated slum growth, and stalled development.
Recognizing the need to address these issues in a proactive manner, UNEP formally initiated work in this area in early 2008. UNEP advocates that long-term solutions for environmentally and climate change induced migration must include work to reverse or at least halt environmental degradation in vulnerable regions. Further, the strong interlinkages between stressed and degraded ecosystems and subsequent forced migration indicate a clear role in the further development of early warning and environmental assessments, a role that UNEP can positively contribute its wealth of expertise to as the UN’s environmental agency.
UNEP’s programme of work in this area has three principal objectives:
- Research, hotspot identification and assessment of high priority vulnerable countries and sub-national regions for targeted UNEP assistance on ecosystems management and climate change adaptation;
- Awareness-raising in the international humanitarian and development community of the importance of environmental sustainability in rural development and its role in forced migration movements; and
- Country project development to assist in policy direction, plans and programmes in identified priority countries and sub-national regions towards ecosystems management and climate change adaptation.
UNEP’s intervention, which focuses equally on ecosystems management and climate change adaptation, engages multiple divisions and regional offices. Programme target regions include south-east Asia coastal zones and the Sahel belt in Africa. In the West African Sahel for instance, where climate change has had profound impacts resulting in famine, widespread disruption of socio-economic well-being and large-scale migration, UNEP is currently developing a project for the Government of Mali, which will aim to integrate climate change adaptation and migration strategies into policy alternatives and practical actions at the country level.
Furthermore, UNEP, the International Organization for Migration, UN University and the Munich Re Foundation are in the process of developing the Climate Change, Migration and Environment Alliance (CCEMA). The Alliance will be a multi-stakeholder global partnership bringing together key international organizations, groups and interested state parties, the private sector, the scientific and professional communities, and representatives of civil society. Its main objective will be to mainstream environmental and climate change considerations into migration management policies and practices, and to bring migration issues into global environmental and climate change discourse. As such, CCEMA will provide an essential platform to (1) raise awareness, (2) improve the knowledge base, (3) provide neutral and open forum policy dialogue and, (4) provide practical support.
UNEP has collaborated with the Forced Migration Review to develop and publish a special issue of the review dedicated to environmentally induced migration, featuring a foreword by the Executive Director, a joint UNEP/IOM lead article, as well as 37 contributions by UN, academic, international and local actors exploring the extent of the potential displacement crisis, community adaptation and coping strategies, and the search for solutions. As such, it represents an authoritative publication on the current status of research and knowledge in this field, as well as future trends. It is available online at http://www.fmreveiw.org/climatechange.htm