Water stress, food security and migration

The Sahel is currently suffering its third food crisis in a decade. Droughts which once came every ten years now come every two. Today, is International World Water Day. Held annually on the 22nd of March, the focus this year is water and food security. Less than eight months on from the official declaration of famine in Southern Somalia I’m struck by the challenges ahead. Climate change brings the risk of human displacement but it may also make it harder for people to move. For those living on the edge of survival what does resilience look like? Particularly in the face of such rapid change.

Adaptation has many forms. In the climate sector, it talks largely to technical or economic interventions that reduce exposure or risk – early warning systems, irrigation projects or micro insurance. Better preparation and financial protection schemes do have a role to play. But in the long term it’s a limited one. Without consideration of the political, social and institutional contexts in which environmental shocks and stress play out, we’re unlikely to support people effectively. Is irrigation water equitably distributed? Who and how are water resources accessed and managed? What influences crop choice at the local level? How do we protect the poorest against food price volatility in an increasingly interconnected world?

Spikes in food price have played an instrumental role in the destruction unfolding across the Sahel. The increasing frequency of drought leaves people and systems with limited time to recover. What role does migration play in all this? Though conventional wisdom sees migration as a development failure, movement has been a successful livelihood strategy for centuries. For pastoralists it is an essential characteristic of survival. What role can remittances play? For families experiencing environmental stress labour migration might, through the return of social and financial remittances address chronic food shortage and support longer-term investment in the community. For this to work we need the right enabling conditions. Resilience will not be realised unless we reduce exploitation, protect migrants’ rights and ensure people can claim a fair share of the wealth they help create. To do so demands a shift away from the attitude that migration is first evidence of a failure to cope. And away from policies that aim to discourage people from moving. A shift that is not technocratic but cultural.

For those faced with deteriorating conditions, the choice to move may be critical. People should have a right to stay but equally the right to move to areas where they can live a sustainable existence. For those with limited resources this may not be an option. As conditions worsen the risk of distress migration rises. In a world where we struggle to assist and protect people who fall within a clear category -that of refugee – the future for those who are difficult to label looks severe. The truth is that forced migration in the context of environmental change is complex. With a sudden onset event like a flood, cause and effect may be easier to establish but for people affected by slower changes boundaries appear blurred. The international protection system rarely deals in uncertainty. So what becomes of all those who fall in the ‘grey’ zone? Respect for human dignity would suggest we start grappling with uncertainty, in the face of rapid change now may be our only opportunity to do so.

Blog author: Hannah Smith. All views expressed are the authors own

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