DOHA (AlertNet) - Migration driven by changing rainfall patterns is on the rise in poor rural communities, as farming families struggle to grow enough food amid worsening droughts and floods. And unless they are helped to cope, governments may face large-scale movements of destitute people in the future, new research says.
To prevent this, the study by CARE International and the U.N. University recommends adjusting agriculture to new climate conditions and to finding alternative ways for rural communities to make a living.
"If national and global practitioners do not act quickly – both to mitigate global warming and support rural communities to adapt in situ, food insecurity and emigration from areas most negatively affected by climate change are likely to grow in the coming decades, with all the humanitarian, political and security consequences that entails," said Kevin Henry, coordinator of the "Where the Rain Falls" project for CARE France.
The research, carried out in diverse districts of eight countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, shows that vulnerable households - especially those with little land - are sending members away during hungry periods to find food or to earn money to buy food.
"Rural people perceive climate changes happening today in the form of rainfall variability. The changes in timing, quality, quantity and overall predictability of rainfall affect households' risk management decisions, including migration," said Koko Warner, scientific director of the project for the U.N. University.
In Kurigram district in Bangladesh, for example, shifts in local monsoon rains have caused growing food insecurity and economic hardship for almost 90 percent of households. And in Tanzania's Same district, 80 percent of households surveyed said intensifying drought has affected their food production "a lot".
The most commonly reported changes include delayed and shorter rainy seasons, fewer rainy days per year, more frequent heavy rains, and more frequent prolonged dry spells in rainy seasons – perceptions that in most cases correlate with local meteorological data over recent decades, the study notes. In many cases, these changes were cited as key reasons for migrating.
Based on a survey of nearly 1,400 households and research sessions involving 2,000 individuals, the report also explores potential future migration patterns in Tanzania under different rainfall scenarios from 2014-2040.
"Our modelling results for Tanzania show that migration from vulnerable households could double over the next 25 years under the most extreme drying scenario," Warner said in a statement.
The case studies - from Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Ghana, Tanzania, Guatemala and Peru - reveal that migration is often temporary and seasonal but can be permanent if no solutions are found to deal with rainfall variability and food insecurity.
Movement tends to be almost entirely within national borders, with the most common destinations being more productive agricultural areas in Ghana, Bangladesh and Tanzania, urban centres in Peru and India, mining areas in Ghana and industrial estates in Thailand and Vietnam.
It is predominantly men who leave, but there is growing migration by women in a number of countries such as Tanzania, the study notes. Some of the poorest families are trapped, however, because they lack the means to migrate, it adds.
Households that have access to aid programmes, education and social networks can often use migration and the additional income it generates to make themselves more resilient to climate stresses. But for households cut off from opportunities, migration is a survival strategy that, in some cases, makes them even more vulnerable, the study explains.
Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, who works at the Centre for Global Change and led the Bangladesh case study, said many poor farmers in the South Asian nation move to seek employment on other people's fields, which does not diversify their economic prospects.
"The future of these migrants doesn't look any brighter," he told a launch event for the report at the U.N. climate talks in Doha. "In hotspot areas, there will be surplus labour, wages will go down, and eventually they will be competing with each other."
There is also a social cost as the vast majority of migrants in Bangladesh are men, leaving women with the extra burden of running the household, Ahmed said. This is provoking new problems such as sexual harassment, he said.
If nothing is done to help vulnerable people build a more sustainable existence, growing numbers will have no other option than to seek food and work elsewhere, the researchers said.
"Hard-fought recent gains in human welfare could be reversed, and governments might be faced with increasingly acute needs among an ever-larger group of marginalised, possibly mobile citizens," the study warns.
"Therefore, all countries have a role to play in minimising pressure on vulnerable populations and providing adaptation options, including for dignified, safe movement of people if this becomes unavoidable," it concludes.
AlertNet's Megan Rowling spoke with Koko Warner, scientific director of the "Where The Rain Falls" project at the U.N. University, about the research findings, and how policy makers should respond to growing climate-related migration.