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Environmental refugees and global warming

16 March 2010 Inderscience

Climate change and environmental degradation are likely to trigger increased migration in Sub-Saharan Africa with potentially devastating effects on the hundreds of millions of especially poor people, according to a paper in the International Journal of Global Warming.

Environmental changes are especially pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), explain Ulrike Grote of the Institute for Environmental Economics and World Trade, at the Leibniz University of Hannover, and Koko Warner of the United Nations University Institute of Environmental and Human Change in Bonn, Germany. Today, degradation is a serious problem for 32 countries in Africa, and a third of a billion people already face water scarcity.

Grote and Warner have analysed the latest data on environmental factors to determine what changes are most likely to trigger migration in SSA. They point to evidence from different branches of research, environmental sciences, migration research as well as development economics. They focus specifically on the effects on four countries: Ghana, Mozambique, Niger, and Senegal covering different regions in SSA. They are characterised by very different natural resource endowments, population and country sizes, political situations and environmental influences, thus providing very different pictures of migration.

In 2005, 34 of the 50 least developed countries were located in Africa, the researchers explain, in 2004, 41% of the population in SSA lived in extreme poverty. Almost a third of the population had to live with insufficient food from the years 2001 to 2003, while violent conflict between 1993 and 2002 prevailed in 27 out of 53 African states. Two thirds of Africa is covered by desert or dry land.

"Against this background, it is not surprising that Africa accounts for 12% of the world’s population, hosts around 28% of the world’s refugees and almost 50% of the world’s internally displaced persons," the researchers say.

Other researchers have suggested that people begin to move “whenever land degradation is coupled with political pressure, armed conflict, ethnic tension, growing poverty, deteriorating services and infrastructure.” Socio-economic and political factors accelerate the chain of processes leading to migration and conflict, environmental factors exacerbate the problems, leading to large-scale migration.

The team explains that in the four countries studies, environmental changes like soil degradation and erosion are especially prevalent in rural areas where poverty is pronounced. In Ghana, these slowly occurring environmental changes, coupled with severe and frequent droughts have been partly responsible for internal migration from the north to the south. Similarly, in Mozambique, droughts triggered internal migration from rural areas in the south to coastal and urban centres. In Niger, these environmental changes related to the expansion of the Sahel desert have resulted not only in internal but also border-crossing regional migration flows. Also, in Senegal, internal and international migration resulted from the environmental changes with respect to the peanut basin where job and farming opportunities decreased with increasing environmental degradation.

"While a strong link between environmental changes and migration is clearly visible, it needs to be considered that these environmental factors are mostly also paired with socio-economic factors like poverty and demographic changes like population growth or conflicts and institutional factors, among others," the team concludes.

While strategies and policies have been adopted in these four countries to either improve the environmental situation or to reduce widespread poverty, there is too little information available to determine how successfully or not they have been implemented.

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