Migration to low-lying coastal cities putting lives at risk -expert

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 March 2012 13:23 GMT
In some areas, especially Asia, climate-linked migration may be 'increasing rather than reducing risk'

LONDON (AlertNet) - Climate change pressures – including worsening droughts, floods and sea level rise – are expected to drive a surge in world migration by 2050. But a worrisome amount of that movement may be putting families in new kinds of peril rather than making them safer, an expert warned on Tuesday at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London.

The number of people living in floodplains of urban areas in East Asia, for example, may rise from 18 million in 2000 to 45–67 million by 2060, according to an October 2011 “Migration and Global Environmental Change” report by Foresight.

Many of those migrating to cities are looking for jobs and other opportunities. But such movement into areas at high risk of climate-related disasters may unwittingly be putting many more families in danger in coming decades, said David Thomas, the head of the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, one of the authors of the Foresight report.

“Rapid growth in urban mega-deltas is putting a lot of people at risk,” said Thomas, particularly because migrants normally end up settling on the only land available, which is often in flood-prone or other disaster-vulnerable areas.

The problem, while most obvious in Asian cities such as Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Shanghai and Mumbai, also extends to Africa and Latin America, affecting cities from Lagos to Rio de Janeiro, he said.

For instance, in the last 15 years, 40 percent of the people who have moved to the city of Dakar in Senegal have settled in flood-prone areas, he said, which means that “migration is increasing risk rather than reducing risk.”

Migration driven at least in part by climate pressures is also proving much harder to understand and predict than expected, said Thomas. What is becoming clear, however, is that as environmental conditions worsen it may be the better-off – not the most desperate – who migrate since they have the resources to make a successful new start.

That means “we need to think about those who stay” as well as those who go, Thomas said. Those who remain behind “may become trapped (and) are at greater risk of future environmental changes.”

The majority of coming climate-related migration also is unlikely to be the result of displacement from one extreme event – such as a flood – but instead the result of a growing burden of pressures that mean “migration is a rational choice.” And future climate-linked migration – like migration today – is expected to occur largely within national borders, rather than across them, he said.

“Migration can be adaptive, can strengthen people’s ability to cope with future change. It’s not a last resort of those who can’t adapt. It’s part of the adaptation process,” Thomas said.

(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)