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How is Climate Change Affecting Human Migration Patterns?

Komal B. Patil Feb 26, 2020
Climate change, a consequence of global warming, affects humankind in many ways. It impacts various aspects of human life, of which one particular aspect is explored in this article - migration patterns.

Environmental Migrant

It refers to people who are forced to relocate and migrate away from their homes due to drastic changes in the local environmental conditions.
The phenomenon of migration is commonly observed in animals as well as humans. In case of animals, migration is a periodic and seasonal event, which involves traveling to a new environment in search of warmer weather, better food source, or for the purpose of breeding.
However, in case of humans, it is very rarely a seasonal or a periodic event, rather, it is often a permanent relocation of people from one region to another. The reasons for such a move are highly diverse, and depend upon the predicament of each migrating individual.
However, during recent times, due to the problem of global warming on account of increased environmental pollution, climate change has played a huge role in affecting the daily lives of people, prompting them to relocate.
The effect of climate change has been so drastic in some areas of the world, that the resulting aftermath has gravely impacted the livelihood and survivability of the local people, giving rise to a need to migrate to a better locale, and in turn considerably altering human migration patterns across the globe.

Climate Change and its Effect on Human Migration

Drastic changes in the climate of a region are a direct result of human-induced environmental pollution. The change results in untimely natural disasters, drought, famine, extremely hot and cold weather, flooding, etc. Since these changes do not impact the entire globe equally, some areas are severely affected, while others are affected minimally.
This causes the people of the adversely affected regions to migrate to the regions that are considerably unaffected, thereby resulting in massive large-scale migration of humans. Given below are the different types of environmental changes, and how they can affect the people of that area.

Rise in Sea Levels

Global warming has resulted in the melting of the polar ice caps, which has added to the vast volume of water on the planet, causing the seawater levels to rise steadily over the past decades.
It has risen almost 11 inches in the past 100 years. This figure may seem inconsequential, but when put into perspective, it indicates a huge threat to coastal cities, and each extra inch of water level implies the submergence of the entire island by an inch.
This is the most alarming effect of global warming, since there is nothing that can be done to stop it. In addition to flooding and submergence of low-lying areas, increase in sea levels also increases the pressure exerted by the water on the seabed, giving rise to shifts in the tectonic plates. This results in frequent seismic activity, volcanic eruptions, and also devastating disasters like tsunamis.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), approximately 44% of the world's population resides on islands, coastal cities, or at least within a 90-mile radius of a coastline. Such regions make up some of the most densely populated cities on the planet, including New York, Singapore, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hawaii, etc.
If these regions were to go underwater, it would considerably reduce the area of human habitation, therefore forcing humans to migrate away from the coasts in order to be able to live on land. But due to the limited area of available land, forests, agricultural land, and bio-reserves would be adversely affected and greatly reduced.
According to a recent World Bank study, hundreds of million of people will be displaced by the end of the 21st century.

Melting of Glaciers

Glaciers are large bodies of compacted ice that often function as the source of rivers by slightly melting in the summer, but the lost water is replenished in the form of snowfall in the winter.
This precarious balance goes haywire in the face of global warming, as the increased environmental temperatures caused the permafrost to thaw and the ice to melt at a faster pace than normal. This can result not only in the flooding of nearby regions, but also in avalanches and mudslides due to the thawing of the glacier.
Since most agricultural land is found along the banks of rivers, the flooding of the river would destroy and reduce arable land and the source of livelihood. The nearby settlements of humans would also be damaged to a great extent.
Over a period of time, the aggravated melting would result in the considerable shrinking of the glacier, such that it is unable to provide enough water to support the river. Therefore, the river would dry up, & cause water shortages in the adjacent areas. This would affect crop production, hydroelectric power generation, small-scale fishing, & aquaculture.
In order to be able to envision this grave effect, one must realize that, approximately one-sixth of the global population inhabits mountain ranges and areas adjacent to rivers and river basins.
Of note are the Himalayan glaciers, which are solely responsible for providing water to almost a quarter of the world's population that lives near it in the nations of Pakistan, India, China, and Southeast Asia.
Since these areas are some of the most densely populated areas in the world, other nations currently lack the capacity to absorb such an enormous number of people, if they were to migrate.

Changes in Rainfall

Depending on the prevalent environmental factors, rainfall may either be excessive, leading to flooding, or it can be greatly reduced, enough to cause droughts (desertification).
Both situations are equally devastating. Both phenomenon would adversely affect crop yields as well as human inhabitation.
Flooding, as discussed earlier, would reduce agricultural land, may cause increase in land salinity (infertile land), and lead to the loss of inhabitable land. On the other hand, desertification would lead to a drought, which would in turn lead to food and water shortage. Both these situations would lead to the migration of people from that area to other parts of the world that do not face the same conditions.

Hurricanes and Storms

Apart from flooding, seismic activity, and volcanic eruptions, the occurrence of hurricanes and storms could also cause widespread devastation and loss of human life and livelihood.
These disasters damage everything path, including infrastructure, buildings, roads, fields, houses, livestock, & people. Areas prone to recurrent storms are difficult to inhabit due to the severe damage inflicted by these disasters. Hence, people of that region may choose to migrate to a different location that is not affected by hurricanes and storms.
This has been evident in the case of the areas affected in Southeast Asia by the Tsunami in 2004, and also by the American cities that were ravaged by the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
According to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in the past decade, almost 90% of natural disasters have resulted because of climate changes due to global warming, and these disasters are responsible for almost 60% of the total deaths in that period of time.

Predicted Migrations

❖ Breakdown of economies dependent on the environment, including farming, fishing, etc., would be the dominant reason for environmental migration.
❖ Rains in Mexican and Central American regions are predicted to fall by almost 50% by 2080. This would eventually lead to drought and famine, encouraging the inhabitants to relocate elsewhere.
❖ The Mekong river delta region in Southern Vietnam is densely populated and highly susceptible to rising sea levels.
A rise of almost 2 meters would cause a loss of almost half its population, and would lead to the submergence of almost 3 million hectares of the region.
❖ Pacific island nations like the Maldives are already facing possible submergence, and hence, are working towards a relocation strategy.
❖ The melting of the Himalayan glaciers would cause the flooding of the basins of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers. These areas currently support a population of approximately 1.4 billion people.
Climate change leads to annihilative natural disasters, not only causing the loss of lives and livelihood, but also affecting various socioeconomic factors of the region. It cumulatively acts as a trigger that induces and encourages the migration of people. But this migration brings along its own negative effects.
Hence, to avert large-scale migrations or to escape the effects of such a movement, appropriate measures must be taken to safeguard against these disasters, while at the same time, a credible solution must be developed to either stop global warming or to significantly reduce its effects on the climate.