Cities: the next front line of climate-induced migration

Urban areas have attracted men and women escaping poverty, from rural communities all over the world. Currently cities are home to half of the world’s population and produce around 75% of the world’s GDP. This amount will only increase in the coming years, it is estimated that by 2050, between 65% and 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities. This is 3.5 billion people now and rising to 6.5 billion people by 2050. Needless to say, this will put a lot of pressure on cities and their resources.

Not only the escape from poverty lures people from rural communities to cities, more and more people make the trek to the big city because they are forced to by a changing climate. These cities, with the potential of becoming mega-cities will become in their turn also extra vulnerable to a changing climate. Per region this will be different. In Africa people will move largely due to drought, whereas in Asia, floods will be the most likely cause of climate-induced migration. Taking a closer look at cities, many of them are important concentrations of population and they are a vital component of national and global economies, particularly in developing nations. This makes cities vulnerable in two ways: their high concentration of people and economically, as many assets are located in (port) cities.

Four ways in which climate change will affect migration
The International Organization on Migration has defined four ways in which climate change is expected to affect the movement of people. Firstly, a greater frequency and potentially greater intensity of weather–related natural disasters. Secondly, the adverse consequences of global warming. Climate variability on livelihoods, health, food security and water availability are likely to exacerbate already existing vulnerabilities. Thirdly, rising sea levels may make coastal areas and low-lying islands uninhabitable. Lastly, competition of shrinking natural resources may increase tensions and potentially lead to conflict and in turn, to migration and displacement.

Tools: Agreements, Disaster Risk Reduction and Urban Planning
When it comes to displacement and adaptation, in my opinion, solutions have to be sought in bilateral and/or regional agreements, Disaster Risk Reduction, and effective urban planning. When it comes to reaching an agreement, it is easier to get five countries together and forge an agreement than it is with 185. Therefore a global agreement on climate-induced migration and giving those displaced by climate change refugee status would not be viable. Simply because a majority of countries and organisations, including the UNHCR, would disagree. In addition to that, Disaster Risk Reduction aims to make communities more resilient against disasters, by creating partnerships between national governments, local governments and civil society. Bringing these parties together creates a framework of how to reduce risks for communities.

Bangladesh Delta plan 2100 & the SMART tunnel
Taking a look at Bangladesh, the country is considered one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. Its delta is the largest delta of the world and its rivers and floodplains make up 80% of the country. The delta is fertile and supports livelihoods and the nation’s economy, but changes in climate make the delta also very vulnerable for floods, cyclones and droughts. The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, is currently home to 10 million people, many of them living in overcrowded slums. Those who fled the effects of climate change in the low-lying delta of Bangladesh find themselves paradoxically exposed to even greater climate risks in Dhaka.

As cities evolve into mega-cities, these urban areas need to become ‘smart’ in adapting to changes in the climate, making them less vulnerable to disasters. Currently in many developing countries, exposure translates to risk, but this does not have to be the case. Many times, natural events become natural disasters because of lack of prevention, inadequate policies and the absence of a long-term vision. A great example of two countries working together is the Bangladesh Delta plan 2100, modelled after the Dutch Delta plan. The plan is a joint-initiative between Bangladesh and The Netherlands. Both countries are at risk because of rising sea levels. As almost half of The Netherlands lies below sea level and Bangladesh experiences floods in its delta annually, an exchange of knowledge in this field is beneficial for both countries. The Delta plan aims to offer a long-term, holistic and integrated approach for the Bangladesh Delta. An example of effective urban planning is the completion of the SMART tunnel (Stormwater Management And Road Tunnel) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2007. This multifunctional tunnel can be used as road and in times of heavy rainfall, when flash floods occur, the road can be closed and the tunnel becomes a reservoir to store the water, diverting it away from the city centre, preventing flooding.

More initiatives like the Dutch-Bangladeshi joint-initiative should take root. They make communities more resilient against the changes in climate and stimulate partnerships on common grounds between countries. When rural communities become more resilient, people will no longer have to make the trek to the big city. Additionally, since the majority of the world’s population already lives in the big city, more attention needs to go to effectively making cities smarter. The example of the SMART tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is a great example of this find here.






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Rene Perey

Rene Perey