Everything you need to know about water and migration

Often, migration is a development problem being solved by people using their own agency, and this should be better reflected in policy responses at all levels.

Interview with an expert (series)

Irrigation in drought-hit Gujarat. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI
Irrigation in drought-hit Gujarat. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Most of us know someone who has migrated. Maybe a relative moved to a new country to be closer to family, or left in search of different job opportunities. There are around 272 million migrants in the world today, which is around 3.5 percent of the world’s total population (IOM, 2020). Around 79.2 million migrants are classified as refugees – that is, people driven from their homes owing to war or turbulence of some kind.

In some ways, water, whether that’s water scarcity or flooding, does play a part in migration. We speak to Alan Nicol, Strategic Program Leader – Water, Growth and Inclusion, about climate change, the link between water and migration, and what IWMI is doing to help.

What’s the link between drought/floods and migration?

Imagine your house is flooded or your land is drought stricken and your personal life is disrupted: you have one of two choices. You can stay where you are and tough it out until the next season, or you can move. In many cases people have had to suffer these types of impacts year on year – finally, they’ve made the decision they need to move. This is stress induced migration. The trigger is a drought or flood, but building on their creeping insecurity as the environment becomes more unpredictable.

Can you explain what the patterns of climate migration look like?

There is certainly a link between climate change, migration and water. But it is not necessarily direct. While extreme heat, or other weather events, are becoming dominating factors in parts of Africa and the Middle East, and households may try to move elsewhere as a result of persistent insecurity, there are also many longer term trends. These are less visible but equally impactful. For example, in Ethiopia, prevailing temperatures are rising in higher altitudes, ultimately changing the types of crops that can be grown there, changing disease vectors, and  influencing patterns of farming and settlement. Combined with growing population density, these changes may make people decide to stop farming and look elsewhere – and in different sectors – for their future income.

So, how are people moving?

Most migration in Africa is within the continent. If you’re in the US or Europe, a lot of media focuses on movement of people from Africa. That’s not the dominant migration trend and provides a false ‘signal’ which, unfortunately, can cloud reasoned discussion on how to establish good migration policy. Seasonal migrating populations have long existed for various farming activities, including harvesting when extra physical labor is required. Patterns of movement have been established over many decades. In relation to  nomadism and agro-pastoralism, we see movement and climate variability as interrelated, as populations seek better grazing and water access across the Horn of Africa. These seasonal migrations are an intrinsic part of the response to climate variability. Many have been disrupted over the years as governments have sought to make communities more sedentary.

So, does water really cause migration?

It’s part of a bigger picture – trends at scale across the range of development challenges and responses. You have to look at a deeper complexity than climate or water alone. We have to understand why farming systems that have provided for generations are no longer capable of providing for people. Why do people seek other kinds of gainful occupation? In many populations there is a bulge of ready-to-work young people, the economically active, and due to this growing youth bulge there is pressure on jobs. Many move to seek to work elsewhere, at the same time as the farming systems they are part of have to face new climate challenges. The danger is conflating the two processes too simplistically.

Countries with agricultural systems under stress and these ‘youth bulges’ can also be situated right next door to much richer regions, with highly-developed wage-labor economies. The inequalities are stark for instance, between Ethiopia and Arab Gulf countries, or between North African countries and the EU. The disparities in per capital incomes reflect huge structural inequality at a global level. People say to each other (and themselves) – ‘why not move to Saudi Arabia, where I can get paid at least four times as much a month as in Ethiopia?’ The aspiration is often to earn, remit money to support families, and to save in order to set up a business on return. But the reality is often far harsher.

But no matter what barriers wealthier countries put in place to prevent migration flows, it will happen, informally, if not formally. Arguably, the more barriers, the more informality and risk involved.

What about water conflict?

Pundits have floated the idea that the Syrian conflict was triggered by drought, which then triggered mass migration and conflict. Yet, there were, as always, many other factors. In the Middle East generally, as well as a drought, there was also the impact of the 2008 financial crash, food price rises, and gathering socio-political tensions. It’s dangerous to ascribe climate change or ‘water wars’ as a key driver for migration. Nevertheless, it’s still vital to consider the agency of individuals too, in terms of the changes young people want to make to their lives, including as a result of  social media access and their sense of the world they want to be part of.

Water wars are something that many of us have been debunking for years. It’s easy to try to ascribe water competition to conflict and dispute, but people tend not to fight over water alone – access disputes may be part of political tensions (and water infrastructure may be a tool of hot conflict), but water as a trigger alone is very rare. Water access is certainly a complicating factor in any scenario – there is growing demand from both industry and agriculture and we know water is becoming scarcer, but this complexity needs other political drivers to turn into conflict.

The evidence has actually shown that there’s more cooperation than conflict – it’s about finding a way. Usually this starts with conversations, then data sharing, then joint planning and, finally, legal and institutional changes that help enshrine further cooperation. But it can take decades of hard work.

So what can we, at IWMI, do?

We can help policy makers and planners better understand changes taking place in the migration and other forms of human movement. We can also help articulate the many and varied ways in which water systems, agricultural systems and socioeconomic systems relate and affect migration patterns over time. We can help use this understanding to build back better in climate and/or conflict-affected countries. But what we mustn’t do is see migration as a problem to be solved, Often, migration is a development problem being solved by people using their own agency, and this should be better reflected in policy responses at all levels.

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