Climate-related migration ‘a serious threat’

Climate change-related migration is “a serious threat to the sustainable growth and stability of Asia and the Pacific”, a draft report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has warned.

If not acted upon immediately, it “has the potential in the decades ahead to become a humanitarian crisis”, Bart W. Edes, director of the Poverty Reduction, Gender, and Social Development Division at the ADB, told DVB. “Right now, governments and the international community are not addressing climate-induced migration.”

The Bank’s last survey of the problem related to Burma was prior to 2000, when it warned that 34.1 percent of the country’s population was at risk of coastal flooding. This figure has likely climbed over the past decade as the effects of climate change have intensified.

“Migration as a form of adaptation will be a more common response to the impact of climate change than the displacement of entire communities,” the report continues. “The latter will occur as a last resort once adaptation possibilities and community resilience are exhausted.”

Edes also warned that the region would see an “exacerbation of problems related to poverty”, as well as urban overcrowding. Tension will also “[flare] as migrants come into communities that are not welcoming, so clearly governments need to give this greater attention”.

The Burmese population’s reliance upon agriculture could, in an increasingly unfavourable climate, be a strong push factor for migration to both Burmese cities and to neighbouring countries.

It has taken several years for Burma’s rice output to recover to the level it was at prior to cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which devastated the southern Irrawaddy delta and destroyed an estimated 1.75 million hectares of farmland, or 30 percent of the wet season rice area.

The ADB warns that Burma is among the few countries in the region at risk from a cyclone, a caution that will come as no surprise given Nargis, and last year’s cyclone Giri.

Around 70 percent of Burma’s population survives on agriculture, despite it being in a state that is possibly one of the most inadaptable and low-tech in the region.

The country’s agriculture sector has been plagued by mismanagement, according to analysts and economists who are at pains to point out the huge decline in rice exports, now only equal to some 17 percent of the 1938 figure.

Not only will the risk of coastal flooding in the Irrawaddy delta eventually push thousands off the land, but central Burma’s dry zone will most likely yield less to those tilling the land. The inability to sustain themselves will, the ADB  speculates, swell the migrant population of Thailand, where some two million Burmese currently reside.

While the Bank is quick to point out that migration across the region is no new phenomenon, and has in fact “already been an important adaptation to environmental and other changes in Southeast Asia”, it warns that “the issue of climate-induced migration will grow in magnitude and will take different forms”.

Moreover, “at present, no international cooperation mechanism has been set up to manage these migration flows, and protection and assistance schemes remain inadequate, poorly coordinated, and scattered.”

The report concludes that it is therefore “urgent to address this issue proactively. Failure to do so could result in humanitarian crises with great social and economic costs”.

There is also a focus on Southeast Asia’s “megacities”, many of which it claims are at risk of inundation from flooding and other hazards associated with climate change. This of particular concern as the ADB report suggests that between 2000 and 2050, there will be a 182.6 percent increase in urban populations “at risk of multiple hazards”.

Urbanisation is occurring at a rapid rate in East Asia, primarily as a result of economic development. Cities like Rangoon will, in theory, swell as agriculture yields less, and like other regional cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, is seen as particularly vulnerable.

According to ADB, the draft report is part of a regional research and development technical assistance project to “improve understanding of climate-induced migration in selected countries and regions of Asia and the Pacific”. The study is called Policy Options to Support Climate-Induced Migration.

The draft is only the first part of a project that will span the year and further engage with experts, organisations and governments.

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