YOUTH VOICE: Examining the Link Between Climate Change & Migration — The Darfur Case

Posted on October 9, 2011 by


It is now widely accepted that we are entering a period of unprecedented change in the Earth’s climate, caused in large part through human activity. Yet it is also the Earth’s climate that will cause unprecedented change in future human activity (Foster 2001, 7). This paper utilises McLehman and Smit’s conceptual model to investigate the relationship between climate change and human migration in the Darfur region in Sudan which is currently suffering profusely due to numerous climatic stresses. These changes are expected to be reflected in, among other things, higher average temperatures, widespread changes in precipitation patterns, increased risk of drought over many land areas, rising ocean levels, and more frequent extreme weather events (Houghton et al, 2001). Among the many potential impacts of climate change for human societies is the possibility of changes in human migration patterns (Salehyan 2008, 320). In the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on vulnerability, impacts and adaptations, the question of whether such climatic changes could result in changes in human migration patterns was discussed but no substantial conclusion was reached (McCarthy et al., 2001). It did outline numerous studies showing how human populations have used migration as an adaptive strategy to adverse environmental conditions, and to those that suggest migrations of “environmental refugees” are a possible consequence of land degradation and conflict. The region of Darfur will be assessed in terms of their capacity to adapt to these unprecedented environmental changes.

The Model

McLehman and Smit (2006) have constructed an initial model to demonstrate and conceptualize the way in which climate change can induce the adaptive response of Migration. However this model is limited in the sense that its focus is on differentiating the adaptive responses on a micro level that of individual household rather than a macro level, that of community or higher level institutions. The model begins by assuming that a change in climate initiates a change within the environment and/or socio-economic conditions of a given community.  From here there are two possible responses and both depend on the community’s ability to adapt and adjust to the change. Firstly if an adjustment by the communities institutions can be made so that the safety of the community members is not at risk then there should be no significant changes to the migration patterns out if the community. Alternatively if the community’s institutions are unable to adjust and cope with the environmental change then the focus switches to the individual households to assess their own situations and implement their own adaptive strategies.

From here migration of one or more members away from the community may be a viable option. Any change through migration creates a ripple effect. If household members migrate away from the community this then alters community membership, which then alters the nature of community institutions. The community may also gain migrants from other communities that have suffered changes in their environment, creating the situation where the cycle is a feedback model and no one community exists in isolation. The effect of changing migration patterns and community membership does then affect the community coping capacity. This model is far from stagnant; it outlines how initial community institutions are affected prior to individual households however this is not always the case. There are other alternatives to the progression illustrated in this model. Essentially this model highlights the active role of individual and private households have in climate migration process but it still acknowledges that such decisions can be made at a public level as well (McLeman & Smit 2006, 36-38).

A change occurs within the environment and/or socio-economic conditions of a given community (x). 

Sudan is one of Africa’s countries that is most seriously stricken by drought, desertification, and famine (Moghraby 1987, 1). The Darfur region is situated in the west of Sudan is roughly the size of France. It is unique in that it occupies four different climatic zones resulting in a rich savanna in the south through poor savanna, an arid zone and a desert in the north (Habib 2009, 13). The Darfur region has also had a rapid increase in population over recent decades as the growth rate is predicted to be 3.1 per cent per year (Fuller 1987, 3). This region has fairly low rainfall and supports rainfed sedentary agriculture and nomadic pastoralism, and a range of domesticated plant species is grown under irrigation by seasonal watercourses (Robinson 2004, 9). The movement of nomadic pastoralist and their herds depend entirely on the availability and range of pasture species according to the season, millet and sorghum are the staple crops in Darfur region, and indeed in most of the Sudan. The Darfur region and neighbouring Kordofan region are the major producers of millet, together producing about 90 per cent of the millet produced in Sudan (Fuller 1987, 4).The balance between the nomadic way of life and the sedentary has always been delicate. But the careful use of water and the plant genetic resources have in times past successfully maintained the ecological balance needed, yet this balance has been disturbed (Salehyan 2008, 2).

The Darfur region is now experiencing a rapid acceleration of the desert as a result of drought, deforestation, overpopulation and overgrazing that has exerted huge pressures on the ecology of the region (Robinson 2004, 1). Desertification has been defined as the spread of desert like conditions in arid or semi-arid areas due to man’s influence or to climatic change. It is implicitly understood that desertification leads to “long lasting” and possibly irreversible desert-like conditions (Hellden 1991, 372). In Sudan the link between desertification and conflict is undeniable as the hardship that pastoralists are experiencing is an underlying cause of the current war. Essentially the change in climate has initiated a change in environment as desertification continues to spread from the north and the south suffers consistent drought, these groups are pushed together creating a competition over the little resources still viable within the region (Habib 2009, 14). The disparity of the annual rainfall which ranges from 400-800 millimetres per year in the savanna to zero to zero millimetres in the desert zone has plunged Darfur into several prolonged periods of drought over the past half-century which is also connected with the long term warming trend sweeping the earth (Fadul 2004, 34). Scarcity of water and frequent droughts due to relatively low and unreliable rainfall lead to successive crop failures which result in severe food shortages and famine (Afolayan & Adelekan 1998, 215). The use of indigenous plant resources which includes wild species are the main source of income within the region (Robinson 2004, 1). This scarcity of resources and available income presents the opportunity for communities and individuals to adjust and adapt to the change in environment.

 Response One: Communities adapt therefore there are no significant changes in migration patterns out of the community.

The model outlines the possibility of two outcomes from the change in environment. The first dictates that communities adapt and that this then eliminates the possibility of migration. Adaptation refers to how individual actors and sectors are able to change and adapt to shifting environmental conditions and is an integral component to climate change (Afolayan & Adelekan 1998, 215) (Fankhauser 1996; Smith and Lenhart 1996). Possible adaptations in agriculture vary in regard to the climatic stimuli to which the adjustments need to be made, these adjustments also include the location, economic, political and institutional circumstances (Smit & Skinner 2002, 86) (Bryant et al. 2000). Conway (2005) identifies a number of possible adaptation measures the Darfur region could adopt in response to water stress during droughts and high rainfall variability. These include improved water exploitation methods, irrigation, water transfer, water harvesting and storage. The introduction of these adaptation responses allows the community to utuilise the water to its fullest potential. It also informs the community of possible management actions and allows them to be part of solution. It is also identified that in the case of shared river basins the introduction of regional cooperation protocols are needed to decrease the likely hood of conflicts in arid and semi arid regions (Conway, 2005) (Leroy 2009, ). Adaptation is not just a question of being able to cope with new climate conditions, but also with new socio-economic conditions created by efforts to mitigate climate change (Mazo 2009, 8).  Because of the economic situation in Darfur the likely hood of adaptation is minimal. Implementation of these water saving methods are not likely to happen which will force people to migrate rather than adapt. In comparison with many western communities, communities in Darfur may have a greater capacity to adapt due to their agricultural based lifestyle yet this reliance on agriculture is a root cause for their need to adapt.

Response Two: Community’s institutions are unable to adjust and cope with the environmental change.

Here the focus moves to the individual and their ability to assess their own situation and adopt an adaptive strategy, which may include migration. Suhrke (1991) distinguishes between environmental migrants and environmental refugees and states that “migrants make a voluntary rational choice to leave their country whereas refugees are compelled to flee by sudden, drastic environmental change that cannot be reversed” (Horne 2006, 2) (Suhrke & Visentin 1992, 2). The precise definition of a climate refugee is highly debated and many definitions use the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ interchangeably (Boano, Zetter & Morris 2007, 7). The most-quoted definition of an environmental refugee was provided by Essam el-Hinnawi in 1985, then working for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). It states “…those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life(el-Hinnawi  1985, 4). Migration across regional and national boundaries could therefore be considered as an adaptation strategy (Leroy 2009, 5). Current estimates of the number of environmentally induced refugees range as high as 200 million by 2050, although it is difficult to make estimates as these depend on the overall population growth.  To put this in perspective, at the end of 2008, there were some 42m forcibly displaced persons worldwide, four-fifths of them in developing countries (Mazo 2009, 12).  As of mid-August, some 180,000 Darfurians had fled to neighbouring Chad, where UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) has established refugee camps to care for most of them. Although these refugees are fleeing from violence these all stem from climate induced stress on the population (McKinsey 2004, 4).

There has been some movement of people from Northern Darfur settling in Southern Darfur at least since the early 1970s, yet this process is accelerating due to the recent droughts (Fuller 1987, 20). In some cases, refugees have been assisted by relatives who had previously moved to South Darfur. However, only a small minority of recent refugees received such assistance. Many others sought assistance from the local population in Southern Darfur. Many villages in Southern Darfur have been generous to refugees who have arrived at their villages in need of food. However, some refugees have been forced by circumstances to enter into the rather exploitative economic relationship with local land owners. Furthermore, in many areas the ability of local villages to assist refugees is nearing exhaustion. It should also be noted that in many cases migrants have resorted to environmentally destructive practices in an attempt to support themselves; e.g., many refugees cut wood for sale, thereby flooding the market with wood, earning themselves meagre incomes, and stripping destination areas of much vegetation (Fuller 1987, 6). As a result, the increased population density near existing communities may cause the desertification process to be repeated in Southern Darfur (Fuller 1986, 40). Within Darfur the upsurge in violence has resulted in many farmers abandoning their farms and seed stocks. Social systems are disrupted and rehabilitation of agriculture will be very difficult (Robinson 2004, 8).

This cycle as a feedback model

Any change through migration creates a ripple effect. If household members migrate away from the community this then alters community membership, which then alters the nature of community institutions. For example in Darfur male household members have often migrated to Khartoum in search of wage labour when times of low rainfall hinder agricultural production leaving the women within the village to work (Afolayan and Adelekan, 1999).The community may also gain migrants from other communities that have suffered changes in their environment, creating the situation where the cycle is a feedback model and no one community exists in isolation. The effect of changing migration patterns and community membership does then affect the community coping capacity (Campbell 2008, 4). A profound increase in the movement of climate refugees will cause greater tensions and perhaps violent conflicts between and within countries over uncontrolled migration issues. Such massive migrations within a relatively short time are likely to be deeply problematic for the “host” countries for the climate refugees. The host population in the settlement area tends to have relatively low social status and little regional or national political influence (Fuller 1986, 52).

Consequently, the land of the host population is frequently taken away without adequate compensation during the settlement process. Such an approach is especially tempting in Sudan, where by law the government owns virtually all the land. Instead of ignoring the concerns of the host population, however, efforts should be made to reduce the potential for host/settler conflict. The ideal situation is to locate settlements far from existing villages as this eliminates the possibility of creating a new group of victims i.e. the host population or putting the migrants into a situation where they may experience tension or even conflict with the existing settlement (Fuller 1986, 51). When this cannot be done, it is important to remain alert to the necessity of protecting the rights of the host population previously exercising some claim to land at or near a proposed settlement site. To ignore the rights of the host population risks (a) creating a new group of victims, i.e. the host population, or (b) thrusting the migrants into a situation in which they will experience tension or even conflict with their new neighbours. As Scudder (1984) notes, ‘it is fair neither to the hosts nor to the settlers to ignore customary tenure, since future land disputes can jeopardize the entire settlement process” (Scudder 1984). For example a civil war is being fought in Darfur in western Sudan that has resulted in a humanitarian disaster with large numbers of Sudanese refugees seeking a safe haven in neighbouring Chad (Robinson 2004, 1). The conflict is largely ecological in origin and is based on competition for natural resources, including plant genetic resources.


The Darfur region in Sudan clearly illustrates McLehman and Smit’s conceptual model.  Migration as an adaptive response to climate change is not a new concept as numerous studies show that human populations have been adjusting to adverse environmental conditions for years. Human activity is partly to blame for the change in the earth’s climate yet this environmental change is also impacting upon and changing human activity. McLehman and Smit’s model is far from stagnant it fails to take into account the people’s perceptions of the environmental changes or the risks associated with subsequent adaptive decisions. Adaptation and migration will work for some communities more than others depending on location, size and type of environmental change, culture, economic situations and institutions available. The likelihood of climate induced migration within the Darfur region is high due to the fact that natural resources are limited everywhere, essentially the people migrating find the problems follow them and could be faced with the same decisions on adaptation and adjustment. The Darfur region is suffering from desertification which then impacts upon the local communities as they compete for limited resources. This competition will create movement of people as they vie for natural resources in an increasingly limited supply.



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