Population displacement (migration) due to environmental degradation:
To “migrate” means to move from one’s habitat. This movement ranges from free or voluntary movement, to forced or involuntary movement. In many cases, people are “displaced” by forces beyond their control, and hence the term “population displacement.” Environmental refugees are those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of prolonged environmental degradation / disruption caused by either nature and/or triggered by people, which jeopardized their existence / livelihood seriously affecting the quality of their life.
Population displacement due to environmental degradation is not a recent phenomenon. Historically, people have had to leave their land because it had been degraded (through natural disasters, war or over-exploitation) and could not sustain them. What is recent is the potential for large movements of people resulting from a combination of resource depletion, the irreversible destruction of the environment and population growth (among other factors). The physical environment now is changing in ways that make human populations more vulnerable to environmental stress. As deforestation, global warming and other threats appear a new category of displaced people called environmental refugees have been created. The number of people displaced by environmental degradation is immense.
Recently, according to many, environmental refugees have become the single largest class of displaced persons in the world. As governments do not take official account of this unconventional category, estimates of the number of environmental refugees vary greatly. Countries in Africa and
There are numerous examples presented to substantiate the link between environmental change and population movement, but the commonly cited are the Sahel in Africa,
If deterioration of the natural resource systems continues, political and social instability will be aggravated, as will economic stagnation and rural poverty. This phenomenon in turn will constrain future economic and social development in the vulnerable developing countries.
There are three important stages in the movement process:
a. Survival—using movement as a means of obtaining relief from environmental stresses;
b. Recovery—where movers are able to use their movement to recover from the problem, and consolidate their position; and finally,
c. Improvement—where a person is able to use movement as a means of enhancing their position and prospects, in which case a return to the place of origin may be less likely to occur.
Migration is a complex phenomenon, and it is not clear in what ways environmental degradation influences a person’s decision to migrate. It is also difficult, if not impossible, to isolate environmental stresses from the complex web of social, economic, and political relations present in everyday living. However, accepting these difficulties, two sets of recommendations are presented below. The first set outlines general recommendations for assisting communities and regions under environmental stress, particularly where that stress may contribute to population movement. The second set provides more specific recommendations.
1. A major emphasis to be given on promoting sustainable development and its ecological, economic and social manifestations. Further, this implies ensuring human security. More specific recommendations include:
(a) Develop a system to help anticipate migrations that may be triggered by environmental disruptions. This could be in the form of an early warning system or simply a continual assessment of the vulnerability of regions and communities to environmental stress.
(b) Focus efforts on identifying adaptation mechanisms and how these mechanisms may be reinforced in vulnerable communities and regions.
(c) Develop case studies of the influences of environmental degradation on migration, with specific consideration paid to the development of procedures for assisting those people affected by environmental disruptions.
(d) Develop better working relationships between organizations devoted to human rights, environment, population and migration.
(e) Involve migrants and refugees directly in the development of programs to assist those affected by environmental deterioration.
(f) Recognize the cumulative causality of environmental degradation and population movement, and assist receiving regions to ensure minimal environmental impacts of the migration flows.
(g) Provide development assistance to countries most vulnerable to future environmental change; and
(h) Recognize that human rights and the sustainability of the environment—indeed, human security and all its components—should be the cornerstone of any assistance policies.
2. The more specific policy recommendations focusing on promoting sustainability in resource use, considering thoughtfully the complexities that underlie population growth rates and addressing the inequitable distribution of income and access to resources between and within countries, would be:
(a) An increase in support for women’s reproductive health and rights. Following the outcome of the UN Population Conference in
(b) There must be greater focus on agricultural activities and the role of multi-nationals in aggravating the resource inequities that exist in many countries. This should also include a focus on reducing erosion and deforestation, and increasing the sustainability of small farms in marginal areas.
(c) Greater effort should be made to improve environmental awareness and knowledge at all levels. This includes care for the environment and sustainable resource use.
(d) In this context, an adequate supply of freshwater is crucial. It is also imperative that treated water is recycled for agricultural uses. Inefficient use of water, water loss in urban areas, and the lack of systems to use recycled water greatly affect social welfare.
The complex nature of environment-population linkages makes it difficult to develop policy recommendations that are as concrete as many would like. However, it is apparent that environmental degradation and resource depletion, often filtered through contexts of poverty and inequity, can contribute to population movement.