Climate/Environmental change nexus West African migration and the underlining political ecology issues of environmental justice.


By Abdoukarim Sanneh, London, United Kingdom

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990 indicated the gravest of climate change may be those on human migration as millions will be displaced (IPCC1990:20). In the recent years many Environmental Justice Organisations are been advocating for a revisit of The 1951 Geneva Refugee convention so that the World can recognised and protect the status of what they called environmental refugees. Many Western governments constructed migration in neoliberal economic perspective with distinct terms such economic migrant and failed to acknowledge to driving forces of migration link to issues such as the trend and pattern of global environmental change nexus West African Migration and other related aspect of climate justice and equity in climate change debate.

There is an increasing interest in academia about environmental change and migration and researchers are predicting that millions of people in years to come will be class as environmental or climate refugees. In Sahel countries such as Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, land degradation, change in rainfall pattern or precipitation due to climatic variability and climate change are social-ecological conditions of population movement. Environmental change such as drought, loss of soil fertility, deforestation, desertification etc impact on lives and livelihood and with lack of coping capacities and strategies, people use internal and cross border migration as a coping strategy. Urban Rural drift is a common negative terminology we often use in rural development and Agricultural extension to describe internal in-country migration, which in social economic perspective is a coping strategy for livelihood diversification.

In academia, there is no general agreement about the linkages among environmental changes and migration, also there is different notion, and conception about environmental refugee or climate-induced migration but in recent decades there has been increasing interest between environmental change and migration. In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that the gravest effect of climate change may be on human migration as millions will be displace due to climatic stressors. The Stern Review which is a 700page UK Government Commission report on the Economic of Climate Change mentioned that 120-200 million people will be migrated because of climate change, while International Organisation for Migration gave an estimated of 200 million environmental migrants and Green Peace Germany suggested 150-200 million climate change refugees.

The term environmental refugee in academic literature is highly controversial but many advocacy organisations campaigning for climate justice such as Environmental Justice Foundations are calling for revisit of 1951 Geneva Convention for recognition of some form of status for what they called Environmental refugees. There are several authors of environmental literature that mentioned the notion or conception of Environmental refugees, such as Lester Brown of United States Environmental Think Tank World Watch Institute and United Nation Environmental Programme. In their reports, they defined Environmental Refugees as people forced to leave their traditional habitat temporally or permanent because of chemical or biophysical changes in the ecosystem or resource base due to which they could support their livelihood.

Many post development academics in their debate on environmental refugee critic the terminology for been strongly influenced by neo-Malthusian assumption that population growth nexus migration and conflict because of resource scarcity. In Academia on Environmental change and migration, there a diverse theoretical, legal and political argument surrounding environmental refugees but there is a strong evidence that global environmental change is adversely affecting lives or living conditions which obliged them to leave their habitual homes either temporally or permanently or either move within their country or abroad.

Environment and migration scenarios occurs in response to sudden disasters and extreme environmental events such as soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, drought, floods, sea level rise, earthquakes, hurricanes etc. The climate in West Africa Sahel countries such as Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso is characterised by seasonal changes with erratic rainfall pattern. The vegetation in the Sahel is mainly controlled by rainfall and research on climate change and climate variability in the region observed declining rainfall pattern. The declining in rainfall pattern has an impact of the vegetative cover because decrease in vegetation result in the decline of biodiversity, evapotranspiration, soil moisture, soil fertility and food supply for humans and animals.

Farming is the main source of income for most of the inhabitants of people West African Sahel and because of land degradation due to high climatic variability and fragile soil; West African Sahel becomes ecologically highly vulnerable region. Williams/ Balling (1995, cited Rasmussen 1999:152): defined “land degradation as reduction of biological productivity of dryland ecosystems, including rangeland pastures and rainfed and irrigated croplands as a result of an acceleration of certain natural processes’’ This may include a variety of processes such as loss of biodiversity, soil erosion by wind and water, depletion of soil nutrients, changes in the physical structure of the soil salinization and other (Rasmussen 1999). The actual degree of land degradation in Sahel West Africa remain unclear but studies done by both Hammer 2005 and Ustin et al, 2009, indicated the interaction among climate and human activities as causation to land degradation.

Debates about climate change induced migratory movements and its possible links to links to political instability and conflict such as Darfur Conflict along with the discussion on migration flows across the deadly Mediterranean Sea, frequently highlight the West African Sahel as a region of concern. There is growing evidence that shows changing and unsteady environmental conditions is leading to changing migration pattern in Sahel West Africa. However, environmental stressors is often not the major factor that causes people to move. Climate change produce environmental effects that exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and climate change research shows that West African Sahel regions such as Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania etc are the most affected by climate change. These areas are arid and semi- arid and with low erratic rainfall pattern which characterised the West African Monsoon and land degradation resulting from overgrazing, expansion of agricultural land and deforestation reduces agricultural productivity. With these natural hazards, migration can be one possible social response as adaptive mechanism as a mitigation to the risks of climate change and climate variability and uncertain agricultural production, a livelihood diversification strategy.

Land degradation, climate change and migration in West Africa has lot of political implications to strengthen resilience and prevent security problems. There are lot of challenges posed by the link between climate change, desertification, land degradation, drought and migration in West Africa. In essence, there should be response at both National and Regional, policies that deal globally with profound causes of migration driven by climate change, desertification, land degradation and drought.

In conclusion, there is a strong correlation between Climate change and the trend and pattern of current migration in West Africa. It a moral and social responsibility for West African Governance to strengthen and consolidate the cooperation with International Organisation on issues pf environment-migration and the effect of land degradation and climate change on security matters. Climate change amplifies existing social, environmental, economic and political stresses and creates new ones. Its ‘multiplier effect’ will push some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people deeper into poverty, while strains on national and international governance are amplified and progress on development is obstructed. A large proportion of the planet’s population already lives in conditions where they are denied many basic human rights. Projections of climate change indicate that this will increase as food and water security decline, homes are damaged or destroyed by extreme weather events and more lives are threatened.


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