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A new way to think about would-be climate migrations:Turning vulnerabilities into adaptive capacity

Climate moves people

Environmental change and its impacts still feel like a distant, abstract problem to those who are not directly affected.

For the impoverished and vulnerable, the impacts of environmental change on their livelihoods are already here. They occur when communities lose their livelihoods due to rising sea levels, floods, droughts, and other environmental hazards, leading to large-scale migrations of people, within and between countries.

UN forecasts estimate that there could be anywhere between 25 million and 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050. 

Where will they go?

Patterns of migrations differ, movements of people can be internal within a country, or international, voluntary or forced, and either temporary or permanent. 

The environmental change affects mostly threaten poor agricultural communities, which are forced to move, mostly internationally, while wealthier people have accessibility to resources allowing them to move to less impacted places, mostly voluntary, within a country.

Generally, most would-be migrants don’t want to move away from home. Instead, they will try to make gradual adjustments in their livelihoods to minimize change. First, they will try to find new ways to sustain their livelihoods, like planting more resistant plants. When those attempts fail, they move to a larger town or a city to find less land-depended jobs.

If those places fail them they will go further and cross borders, taking on ever riskier journeys. 

Leaving your village for the city is hard, but crossing into a foreign land, vulnerable to both its politics and its social troubles, is an entirely different struggle, often ending in intergenerational poverty and uncertainty.

What can we do to prevent these scenarios?

One of the impactful ways is creating well-designed policies targeted at the most vulnerable groups, i.e., people most likely to migrate, aiming to increase adaptive capacities of their livelihoods, and hence avoid the need for mass migrations.

Creating opportunities for would-be migrants

It is surprising that, although migration due to environmental change is seen as one of the biggest global future challenges, it still takes less priority than more immediate developmental and poverty reduction goals. In September 2020, when I’m writing this article, there is still no legal definition of environment-related migrants.

One reason for the difficulty in developing effective policies is the complex relationships between environmental change and migration, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

As it is a good idea to fix the hole in the leaking boat before it starts sinking, governmental bodies mustn't wait until the migration has begun to tackle the problem of destroyed livelihoods.

The only way to mitigate the most damaging aspects of mass migration is to properly prepare for it, and preparation demands a sharper understanding of local contexts and interdependencies, leading the transition toward more resilient livelihoods, less dependent on environmental change.

In complex conditions, where the understanding of local human-environment interdependencies is vital, and future challenges are not clear, designing policies based on resilience framework is a promising way to develop livelihoods that function, and possibly thrive, under any new circumstances.

The window for action: Turning resilience concept into real-life operations

To provide a framework for such future policies, while avoiding stereotypical answers and concepts unable to meet forthcoming challenges, I am presenting here the “dual axes” concept to operationalize a somewhat abstract concept of resilience. 

Picture 1: “Dual axes concept" for operationalizing resilience.

This "Dual axes concept" breaks the problem into two central, measurable, and manageable components of resilience: vulnerability and adaptive capacity.

If we agree that our goals are creating resilient livelihoods that are able to maintain or efficiently return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to new conditions, and to quickly transform the some of its parts that limit their current or future adaptive capacities, this is an important graph to keep in mind while designing policies. 

The proposition here is that the more we mitigate the vulnerabilities, and increase the adaptive capacities for people's livelihoods, the system transitions from stagnation towards transformability, and increases the chances for thriving in any disturbance or change. 

In other words, to build resilient livelihoods, we need to understand vulnerabilities, and then target them to build adaptive capacities for any new conditions.

The value in choosing vulnerability and adaptive capacities as components of resilience that can guide policymaking is that they have clear, measurable indicators.

The first "axis", locally specific social and spatial vulnerabilities due to the environmental changes, can be seen as the extent to which the livelihood is weakened, and the extent that it can be sustainably resistant to strong impacts.

The vulnerability can be evaluated and measured as livelihood's "degree of physical exposure", "degree of sensitivity of responding to an environmental change", and assessment of "affected groups".

The second "axis" stands for building adaptive capacities in the groups which might migrate in response to environmental change, and opportunities for their strategical strengthening.

Adaptation both means dealing with consequences and mitigating potential damages, as well as to exploit opportunities that come up in the "adaptive or resilience cycle" of structures and processes, i.e., in the phases of collapse, renewal, conservation, or exploitation.

Adaptive capacities are created through the following processes, in this order:

(1) Investing in information and local and scientific knowledge about environmental change impacts on the local level, both in their production and in the means of distributing them; 

(2) Utilising that knowledge to strategically increase the redundancy and accessibility to resources such as new housing, land, property, social capital, and education to vulnerable groups;

(3) Encouraging institutions that are able to incorporate learning, identify slow variables and manage feedbacks in the system;

(4) Encouraging governance systems that enable continuous participation, for continuously repeating steps 1 to 3. 

As shown here, there are concrete ways to move away from using "resilience" as a poor advertising buzz phrase and to translate those ideas and aspirations into real-world-processes.

As broken bone becomes stronger after it heals, if we can understand the vulnerabilities of would-be-migrants, and build their adaptive capacities, they can become the asset and the new driving force for the sustainable development of the urban or regional system. 

That's the true meaning of turning environmental change into opportunities. 

To do so, I invite you to share your experiences about vulnerability assessments, and building adaptive capacities in your community, in the comments, or write to me directly on my home page

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