YOUTH VOICE: Migration as an Adaptive Response to Climate Change — Xinjiang Case Study

Posted on May 20, 2012 by


Changes in the Earths’ climate are expected to bring higher average temperatures, and wide spread changes in weather and precipitation patterns, increasing risk of drought in many areas, rising ocean levels along with increasing frequency of extreme weather events. What is often overlooked is the impact on human security, and the consequences that this may include (Foster, 2001). Climate change is of international concern presenting significant issues for both environmental and human security. China for example with its high population density, large income disparity, poverty and challenges to food and water security is particularly vulnerable (Economy, 2005). Among the potential impacts that climate change could bring to human systems is the likelihood of changes to human migration patterns (McLeman and Smit, 2006, p.31). Impacts of climate change are likely to affect population distribution and mobility, having the capacity to change and undermine some human systems (Tacoil, 2009). This essay will look at vulnerability and migration patterns due to climate change that will affect China, looking specifically at rural Xingang in China’s north-west. The vulnerability of rural settings is exposed to unprecedented climate change and reveals the importance and prominence of migration as a key issue for China’s future.

The Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China.

One of the primary concerns associated with climate change is vulnerability (Cuevas, 2011, p.34). McLeman and Smit (2006) recognise the vulnerability of human systems as a factor of their exposure to changes of natural systems and their ability to adapt to these changes.  These elements of exposure and adaptive capacity vary according to the properties of biospherical and societal systems in a given location. In this context, adaptive capacity is the ability of the human system to adapt to climate stimuli. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IP CC) defines adaptive capacity as “… The degree to which adjustments in practices, processes or structures can moderate or offset the potential to damage or take advantage of opportunities created by given changes in climate”. There are however a variety of approaches pertaining to how adaptive capacity is applied and measured (Williamson et. al., 2012, p.161). The McLeman and Smit (2006) framework is an example of how adaptive capacity in the context of migration can be applied to a community.

Migration is used as an adaptive strategy that can be employed by individuals, households, communities or populations to cope with the onset of climate stimuli (Black et. al., 2011). In China records demonstrate the historical movement of populations is linked closely to changes in climate, this has been particularly true for nomadic pastoralist populations (McLeman and Smit, 2006, p.31). The documented use of migration as an adaptive strategy to cope with adverse environmental conditions includes both long-term changes in weather patterns and is a response to extreme weather events (Bailey, 2011; McLeman and Smit, 2006, p.31). McLeman and Smit (2006) investigate the ways in which migration patterns are influenced by environmental phenomena – this uncovers that the historical link between climate and human migration is also closely informed by societal factors. Land degradation and conflicts have also been intensified as consequences of climate change, the historical link that exists between climate and human migration is therefore intensified (Reuveny, 2007).

To assess the likelihood of adaptation in the form of human migration as the framework (see appendix one) described in “Migration as an Adaption to Climate Change” by McLeman and Smit (2006) is applied to the poverty stricken northern agricultural communities of Xinjiang, China. Firstly the area will be looked at in terms of its vulnerability to climate stimuli. Second, when evaluating the area’s adaptive capacity both the institutional and household response to climate stimuli is considered. The framework further recognises that migration decisions are made at household level and demonstrates how climate stimuli and adaptive capacity operate in a continual feedback loop.

Topographic map of Xinjiang Province.

It is important to recognise the changes that have already occurred and the prevailing trends to both climate and migration. Xinjiang is a mountain-basin system that comprises of semi arid and arid areas, with barren desert, semiarid grasslands, and open shrub land in north-west China (Wu and Zhang, 2009, p.458; p.465). Increased temperatures and precipitation have led to an increase in agricultural land. The province has experienced an increase in its human population that has led to extensive local and regional changes in land cover and land use, the predominantly agricultural base community has diversified and population density has increased. North Xinjiang is a semi arid, with more habitable land, higher population density and more precipitation than the arid South Xinjiang (Wu and Zhang, 2009, p.458). Urban sprawl and population growth has increased significantly since 1991, North Xinjiang has experienced significantly faster population growth (Wu and Zhang, 2009, p.467;p. 461).

The influx of migrants from 1991 is due in part to the greening province and therefore the potential for agricultural growth in food security and to China’s central government Western development strategy, which encourages commercial and economic growth in this area of China (Wu and Zhang, 2009, p.465).  There has also been an increasing widening of inequality within the region including an increase in relative poverty (Yan and Qian, 2004). Poverty threatened agricultural communities of North Xinjiang  however have been negatively affected by adverse climate conditions and land degradation, this has led to the decline in agriculture in line with parallel urban and industrial growth in the region as well as increased mobility of populations. By the end of 2000 in West China, 10 million members of poverty-stricken populations required relocation, a significant percentage of these where acutely impoverished people whom were from areas of intensely fragile environments (Yan and Qian, 2004, p. 615). Unprecedented warming has been experienced across Xinjiang  in recent years (Wu and Zhang, 2009, p.4 63). Application of the McLeman and Smit (2006) framework to the movement of rural agricultural communities provides evidence of climate change induced adaptation and migration.

These adverse climate conditions play a role in influencing migration out of rural areas. The McLeman and Smit (2006) framework can be used to identify and examine the process that had occurred, as well as examine the potential for the future. Current projections of climate change in the region expect the location will become warmer and drier, having dramatic consequences for the fragile ecosystems of northern Xinjiang (Ni, 2011, P.552-554). These consequences will potentially be felt through the retraction of glaciers and decrease in permafrost, as well as the availability of agricultural land (Ni, 2011, P.552-554). Continuing desertification also presents as a critical problem for this region of China (Ni, 2011, p.560). The risk of both droughts and flooding are expected to increase over a period of time (Ni, 2011, p.558; p.553). Projected climate change impacts will represent the ‘climate change’ input in the McLeman and Smit (2006) framework providing possible impetus to future climate change induced migration. The increased strain leads to land competition, impoverishment, and encroachment on fragile ecosystems (Yan, and Qian, 2004, p. 616). These factors affect the local community. This indirect process links to environmental related migrants with poverty (Yan, and Qian, 2004, p. 616).

The vulnerability of human systems in a community is relational to economic and poverty status, as well as other services including health and education (Cuevus, 2011, p.39 -40). McLeman and Smit (2006) identify the context or situation of migration decisions through investigating the push and pull factors that contribute to the household decision-making process (Wang et. al. 2011).There are a range of social, political and economic considerations that impact upon these decisions at a domestic level. The key question is whether to stay in the climate-change effected area and adapt to these changes, or to move outside of the community (McLeman and Smit, 2006). There is also recognition that this choice is not always an option (McLeman and Smit, 2006). McLeman and Smit (2006) focus on the relationship of capital endowments in household migration decisions. Rural households in China are often lacking in forms of capital including, education, economic and social capital and this consequently limits their adaptive options (Wang et. al., 2011, p. 78).

Financial capital has a significant role in households’ decision-making (Williamson et. Al. 2012). Past migration patterns, such as the influx of migration due to increased food security, can be linked to economic rationale. However, with ongoing climate change precipitation patterns is likely to become less dependable. Decreased rainfall can affect people in economic terms as decline in agricultural productivity represents another motivating factor contributing to why families and individuals decide to move (Tacoli, 2009, p. 517). The decreased productivity and hardships faced by agriculture impact on incoming cash flow and the need for labour. Hardships and the increased economic pressure on rural agriculturally dependent households have a flow on effect to the rural community (Yan and Quain, 2004). These hardships have been intensified by the introduction of industries such as mining, manufacturing and forestry as part of the Western development and urbanisation policies (Wu and Zhang, 2010, p. 467). This increases inflationary pressure on essential products and intensifies scarcities. Increased competition for water leading to a decrease in supply is also a particular problem in the Xinjiang – placing further economic stresses of the agricultural communities (Ni, 2012, P.551). Households are then posed with adaptive choices in order to find sources of supplementary income. Climatic fluctuations as well are widespread semi nomadic origins of rural communities contribute to widespread mobility (Tacoli, 2009, p. 517). In these contexts local migration patterns have seen an increase in temporary and short distance movements (Tacoli, 2009, p. 517).

Many rural workers choose to go to the city and work there (Zhou, 2011, p.612). Education long-term migration on the other hand is highly influenced by a migrant educational background (Tacoli, 2009, p. 517). The existence of social networks, access to transport and road networks enable a trend toward better education. This leads to migration from rural communities to urban centres (Tacoli, 2009, p. 517). Younger landless households are more likely to move permanently than those who own property in climate affected areas (Tacoli, 2009, p. 518). Like much of the rest of China, Xinjiang has experienced a spike in migration to urban areas. A small level of urban growth can be attributed to the decline in rural labour markets such as agriculture and the relaxation of household registry systems by the government in the early 1990s. This allowed rural households to migrate, thus increasing household options. This is typical of areas with high levels of economic growth (Tacoil, 2009, p.515). This has happened where land degradation and spasmodic rainfall have reduced agricultural productivity. This is evidence of decision reflecting capital endowments.

As previously stated rural households are usually lacking in capital endowments. Movement to other communities tends to be dominant for the poorest groups of agricultural households who do not have the skills, financial capital or social networks to be able to move to urban centres (Tacolic, 2009, p. 515). Barriers included an institutional component, highly discriminatory employment practices and access to social security such as, education and health care (Johnson and Krishnamurthy, 2010, Vennemo et. al., 2009, p. 144; Zhou, 2011, p.612). This is particularly true of the impoverished minority groups in Northern Xinjiang (Zukosky, 2011). There is a recognised link between minorities, poverty and agriculture (Zukosky, 2011). Minorities do not have the linguistic, social and cultural capital that allows for greater participation and understanding of skills and assets that are valued by the greater Chinese market (Zukosky, 2011, p. 246). Capital endowments of poverty stricken agricultural communities are not readily converted into financial capital (Zukosky, 2011, p.246).

The process of adaptation of the community is shown by McLeman and Smit (2006) to operate in a feedback loop. This takes into account the ongoing impetus of climate change and the potential diminishment of capital resources. The most obvious examination of this is financial capital. Prolonged exposure to adverse climate effects, such as flooding, can reduce household’s financial capital through the continual outlay in rebuilding, reducing adaptive capacities, potentially increasing the desirability of migration as an adaptive option given the reducing financial capacity to migrate (Gallopin, 2006; McLeman and Smit, 2006). However it is also demonstrated in the trend of young people from rural households being absorbed by labour intensive industry sectors of the economy (Cao et. al, 2011, p.137 – 138). The modified community experiences a further diminishment of capital that directly changes the demographical make up of the community, as in demonstrated in the McLeman and Smit (2006) framework. It is clear therefore that predicted changes to the climate will play a significant role in decision-making. But furthermore this clearly shows the likelihood of future migration due to climate change.

The exposure of China to climate change will inevitably play a predominant role in its future. The application of the McLeman and Smit (2006) framework exposes the dimensions of migration implemented as an adaptive capacity in response to climate change. The prominence of capital as an essential decision-making factor exposes the intense vulnerability of rural settings to the adverse effects of climate change. This essay suggests that the mobility of vulnerable populations in China will increase with the degradation of agricultural environments and increasing adverse climate conditions. This is likely to contribute to increasing migration, particularly the mobility of agriculturally based communities in northern Xinjiang. Climate change and migration are key issues to China’s future stability. These issues are likely to increase as adaptive capacities are diminished as the feedback loop perpetuates.


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Alicia Peters is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Humanities and Social Sciences) student who is concerned about international relations as well as local political issues.  She is currently a member of the student-run People’s Action Club (PAC) at La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga campus, is a founding member of the Albury-Wodonga chapter of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC).

This paper was submitted as an assessment task for the second year undergraduate subject International Politics of Climate Change at La Trobe University.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.