By 2050, around 145 million people in the Global South could be forced to relocate within their own countries due to the gradual impacts of worsening droughts brought on by climate change.
The 2018 World Bank report, imaginatively titled ‘Groundswell’, predicted that such internal migrants would range from 86 million in sub-Saharan Africa to 40 million in South Asia and 17 million in Latin America.
As areas become uninhabitable due to violent storms, scarcity of water and the collapse of agriculture, people will seek more hospitable places to live.
The biggest dislocation will be from areas where communities are dependent on rain-fed crops. As these populations move, pressure on urban centres and zones of sustainable agriculture will mount and eventually, population pressure will degrade the finite resources of these host areas.
A destabilised, perpetually mobile mass of people consuming increasingly scarce resources is now a normal part of the climate change policy conversation.
Droughts are non-dramatic climate hazards associated with inadequate rainfall, drying up of rivers, crop loss, arid soil and collapsed rural economies.
Communities in drought-prone areas have, over time, managed to adapt to the phenomenon but more frequent and severe droughts, worsened by climate change, may prove to be too much, resulting in sudden mass displacement.
Such a process may in turn reveal new dimensions of seasonal scarcity tied to monsoonal variations experienced by rainfed agriculturists in tropical countries.
As people migrate more frequently at short notice and outside existing routes, shock mobility may become routine. Depleted resources at home reduces the ability to negotiate a fair contract with employers, making labour in migrant destinations more precarious.
Migrants travelling within national borders may be identified as a security concern as their movements become unregulated and unpredictable in response to the new risks posed by climate disruptions.
Recognising people who are compelled to move due to the unprecedented effects of climate change as ‘environment migrants’ may influence the development of protective policies.
Predicting future events based on mathematical models raises many questions due to the current limitations of climate science and social sciences that make it difficult to fully understand the impact of climate change on human societies.
Drought-induced migration tends to be internal but the people most affected by climate-induced droughts are also at the risk of being trapped in their depleted environments as many lack the resources and networks to migrate.
Based on a review of case studies, demographers believe that climate change is unlikely to generate mass migration from African drylands to Europe or other continents. Instead, future droughts are likely to cause dislocation through immobility and entrapment. Important disagreements exist around attribution and complex causal paths leading from droughts to migration.
Engaging with these different explanations enables the understanding of the multiple risks associated with drought migrations in terms of how they interact, how harm is distributed and whether adaptations are able to contain these effects.
Hydrologists argue that frequent hot and dry years lead to water-stressed river basins that adversely affect communities dependent on subsistence farming, especially if they live in conflict areas such as the upper Nile basin.
In Australia and California, competing demand on water resources, growing cities and agriculture would require balanced policy measures, which in turn may affect patterns of population mobility and settlements.
In India, private irrigation wells that initially boosted the rural economy have over time resulted in groundwater over-extraction, exacerbating the effects of droughts for arid zone farmers through agrarian distress, indebtedness and forced migrations.
Climate historians argue that the impact of climate change and extreme climate events on human society can be found in a variety of evidence preserved in natural and human ‘archives’, including ice caps, pollen, tree rings, stalactite caves and historical weather observation data - genealogies that describe famines and travels, and art that depicts natural hazards.
But they warn about adhering to narrow climate determinism whereby all historical evidence of past calamity is explained as being caused by climate change, diminishing the relevance of other causal factors and processes such as war, imperialism, governments, economy, social and political institutions and religious and cultural mores.
To avoid this problem, such evidence must be viewed alongside the adaptive and survival strategies of human societies.
Development economists advocate entitlement protection of the most vulnerable people, so that there is not widespread starvation in times of crisis.
Social scientists worry about the echoes of colonial legacies in making simplified connections between climate and populations.
Anthropologists believe that the connections between rural and urban spaces are defined by the ecologies that exist in these locations.
However human aspirations create the possibilities and provide meanings around mobilities, hence the contextual field to understand the effects of adverse climate.
Weather information meant to help prepare communities for adversity have fuelled perceptions that link impending calamities with xenophobic sentiments.
In 2021, an infographic by a bagpipe-playing private weather forecaster that painted north-western India and Pakistan blazing red went viral on Twitter. Followers responded with posts that expressed deep anxiety that rising populations in such countries would increase immigration to Europe.
As future host populations become anxious about climate migrants, anti-migrant sentiments grow. Public opinion about mobile people as threatening collective wellbeing has increased in recent years with perception of diminishing social security derived from multiple processes such as climate change, reduction in public expenditure and the economic crisis.
A historical and contextual understanding of climate mobilities in the Global South (and North) is required to understand how survival and adaptation trajectories form as food, energy and infrastructure systems become more climate resilient.
A failure to understand what droughts bring to the surface in societies boiling with inequality and social polarisation would make it impossible to support communities that are being pushed into streams of futile and dangerous movement.
A deeper understanding of migration flows and investing in adaptation works better than building fences to keep people out.
Sohini Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has worked with grassroots organisations, drought response programmes and public policy making. The author’s research referred to in this article was supported by the Calcutta Research Group.
This article is part of a Special Report on ‘Shock mobility’, produced in collaboration with the Calcutta Research Group.
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