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Planned relocation: a hard but vital part of climate adaptation

Moving communities at risk is better than dealing with emergencies, but relocations have a fraught political history in Africa.

The links between climate change and human mobility have been understudied and underreported, but things are changing. In the past decade, migration and displacement have become part of climate change policy platforms. However, there is still very little action on migration-related measures.

In the lead up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, host Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, cited mass migration as a reason for the world to mitigate climate change. He wrongly claimed that migration led to the fall of the Roman Empire. He suggested that climate-driven migration would be fuelled by natural resource competition and could become Europe’s downfall.

We have heard these warnings before. Estimates as high as one billion climate migrants by 2050 have been suggested, usually to beat the drum for urgent climate action.

In reality, climate-linked migration is overwhelmingly local. It is a vital and natural adaptation strategy for communities affected by sudden- and slow-onset climate hazards. In many cases, such voluntary migration increases resilience by allowing families to diversify incomes, spread risk and build new skills. But it can also increase vulnerability. People can lose assets, become dispossessed and be exposed to dangerous routes or urban poverty.

Planned relocations have far better outcomes than forced displacements in emergency situations

Planning to relocate those at risk in anticipation of climate impacts has far better outcomes than forced displacements in emergency situations. These measures should be included in adaptation strategies and financing but are not. None of the 400 adaptation projects funded by the Adaptation Fund, Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility has included voluntary and planned relocation.

Parts of Africa will become uninhabitable as climate impacts increase. Sea-level rise, salinisation, acidification and desertification are already irreversible in several places. In some cases, early warning systems or improved infrastructure and technologies could allow people to adapt without moving. Funding and planning for these measures are urgently needed. In other cases, such as in low-lying coastal areas, dykes or sand fill won’t protect against erosion, salinisation and sea-level rise.

Proactively relocating people to less vulnerable places could protect lives and assets from future harm while maintaining community ties. And interest in planned relocations for vulnerable communities is growing, particularly in response to slow-onset climate impacts. However, they remain relatively uncharted.

Where people have been moved, this has primarily been in response to sudden disasters and hasn’t always worked. Some have lost their land, property, livelihoods and food access, further marginalising communities and worsening their socio-economic outlook.

Proactively relocating people protects lives and assets from future harm and maintains community ties

Following cyclones and severe floods of the Zambezi River Valley in 2007 and Mozambique in 2008, Mozambique received funding to transfer small-scale farming communities from flood plains to nearby high regions. The new locations were close geographically but in a less fertile agricultural zone. Donor funds were used to create new livelihoods to compensate for lost incomes from farming.

But only farmers who were relocated to nearby areas and received high levels of technical and financial support improved their livelihoods and stayed in their new homes. Others who were moved further away or received less help were significantly worse off. As many as 30% of households returned to the floodplains. Poor planning, communication and implementation were fundamental in the failures.

Africa also has a troubled history with state-led relocations. Under colonial or minority white rule, many people were denied land tenure and freedom of movement, and forcefully relocated. Many post-colonial relocations have also occurred under dubious circumstances, ostensibly to attain development goals.

In 2010, for example, Ethiopia launched a ‘villagisation’ project to relocate 1.5 million people. The government cited poor agricultural yields as an excuse to forcefully relocate people for political reasons, including clearing land for commercial agriculture. Many faced abuse by armed forces and were moved to areas without adequate food, health and education facilities.

Planned relocations require extensive participatory engagement and communication, which take time. Most people have strong place attachment and don’t want to leave their livelihoods, communities and homes, which are often their biggest assets. Communities will only relocate voluntarily if they understand the nature of the threat and are actively contributing to the solution.

People will move voluntarily if they understand the threat and are actively contributing to the solution

The shortage of successful examples, particularly in response to slow-onset impacts, is the primary reason for the poor uptake of proactive relocations. This is all the more reason to plan them well and establish best practices.

Climate threats are evident across Africa. Those waiting for the next disaster or facing crop failures are prime candidates for planned relocations. In Zimbabwe, many farmers have escaped drought in Manicaland province by moving to the rainier, more fertile Eastern Highlands. They now regularly face ‘once in a lifetime’ tropical storms and cyclones, such as Irene in 2000, Japhet in 2003, Favio in 2007, Idai in 2019, Chalane in 2020 and Eloise in 2021.

In early 2021, the media was replete with stories of desperate Senegalese fishermen arriving at, or drowning near, the Canary Islands in tiny artisanal fishing vessels. Coastal erosion and depletion of stock – due partly to European over-fishing – are driving their migration patterns. Many women, children and the elderly are unable to migrate. Aid agencies have relocated some to temporary camps that are vulnerable to environmental hazards.

These are just two of many examples of people migrating out of desperation. Planning and facilitating their movement to the nearest safe locations would have far better outcomes for all.

If the Global North is worried about mass climate-driven migration, they must urgently fulfil their funding commitments and seek community-led adaptation measures to avert forced migration. For African governments, adaptation planning and climate change responses should include voluntary relocation where applicable and establish best practices for others to follow.

Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Researcher Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria

Read the new ISS policy brief on planned relocations here.

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