Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Three cases of migration and conflict: Hurricane Katrina, Bangladesh and The Dust Bowl

"Environmental change can trigger large out-migration, which can cause violent conflict in areas receiving migrants."

A peer reviewed article on environmental migration would fit right into my little project here, right? As I realized Reuveny's Ecomigration and Violent Conflict: Case Studies and Public Policy Implications was a look at only three incidents and that two of these were from the USA my expectations dropped somewhat. Most of this is supposed to be going on in Africa, right?

Well, when the cases from the world's most affluent nation only confirms what speculation you have on the third world... this is a rather interesting article. The three cases are the 1930'ies US Dust Bowl [Wikipedia], Bangladesh since the 1950'ies especially the Farakka Barrage situation [Wikipedia] and August 2005's Hurricane Katrina [Wikipedia]. It's main conclusion you have already read above. But I'll look into a few details...

The theory

Standard migration theory operates with economic, political and other forces - not environmental. Doing so could have serious implications as governments have signed treaties to accept political refugees, not "environmental". However, already in 1985 a paper on droughts and land degradation in sub-Saharan countries concluded these problems caused "population movements".

I think it's pretty much stating the obvious: If you live from the land and suddenly you can't, you're a lot more likely to simply leave the area. It's a different type of border you seek to cross though: While "traditional migrants" would seek to cross a cultural or political border, environmental migrants just wish to leave the stricken area.

The mechanics of "ecomigration" issues is described in four non-exclusive parts:

  • "the in-migration can burden the destination's economy and resources, promoting native-migrant competition for jobs and other resources"

  • "the arrival of in-migrants may upset the existing ethnic balance"

  • "in-migration can enable ploys to exploit the situation and induce suspicions about such ploys"

  • "the conflict may follow existing fault lines"

In-migration is more likely to cause trouble in poor receiving counties than in rich. And migrating women, children and elderly having family ties in the receiving area are least likely to cause conflict. Trouble risk is also correlated to migration mass and period: the more and the faster the more problematic.

Reuveny finishes his theoretical stuff with a pinch of optimism:
"Migration can benefit the receiving area through several channels, including increasing the labor force and tax-base."

The cases

In the 1930s the US Great Plains were stricken by droughts and storms while the area's agricultural practices were far from geared towards the situation. Massive soil erosion and obvious declines in life quality resulted. The area was now called The Dust Bowl. Close to 2.5 million people out-migrated.

Most went to neighboring states but about 300,000 traveled to California. They were received as "ignorant filthy people", called "Okies", some argued Bible in hand that they were "inferior" and it was even suggested to pay them to be sterilized. They were beaten, their shacks burned and they were accused of "communism". In 1936 Los Angeles police stopped migrants at the state border. Welcome to California.

The Bangladesh case is a bit more typical. A small less developed country with a huge and growing population strains it's natural resources to a breaking point. It's geography happens to make it particularly vulnerable to both accumulated environmental stresses (soil erosion etc.) and periodic natural disasters (namely floods).

Then in 1975 the neighboring country builds a barrage, diverting water away from Bangladesh. Salt water intrudes the sinking fresh water resources and land productivity plummet. 35 million people were directly affected.

Some 12 to 17 million Bangladeshis have migrated illegally to India and about half a million to other areas in Bangladesh. Migrants have since clashed with residents over social, ethnic, religious, national and other proximate issues. Countless people have been killed in clashes.

Reading about Hurricane Katrina is particularly weird as this is fresh from TV memory. But as it turns out the case fits right in.

A combination of human and natural factors combined to aggravate a disaster situation: the Mississippi River had been turned into a maritime highway destroying natural sedimentation, land clearing and draining of swamps eliminated natural coastline protection, compromises led to levee building only protecting from hurricanes level 3. The false sense of security from the levee only led to more risky development.

80% of the population fled the area when weather forecasts told of the impending hurricane. Including 100,000 elderly and poor who were evacuated by the government. Shortly after Hurricane Rita hit too and US government estimates a total of nearly 2 million people were displaced.

As we all remember, New Orleans was smashed. One year after Katrina hit 2,180 people had died as a direct consequence of the storm, more than 200,000 people lost their jobs, about 335,000 homes were destroyed and only about 40% of New Orleans' population had returned.

Across the river from New Orleans the city of Gretna [Google Maps] had police block the entry of displaced people firing warning shots in the process. Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia insisted more than half the evacuees they'd accepted were violent criminals. The city of Houston reported a rise in homicides of 70% in November and December 2005 and 28% in February 2006 compared to normals. March 2006 75% of Houston residents answered a poll they felt "strained" by the 150,000 migrants living there.

Reuveny sees three main similarities: The three societies all depended on their environments for livelihood, human actions or lack thereof exacerbated the disasters and political, economic, sociological and psychological factors overlapped with environmental ones. A number of obvious differences are mentioned too.

Climate change is expected to cause a wide array of disasters and stresses on our ecosystem. Sea level rise is just one of them. Flickr Creative Commons image is "Climate Change Refugees" by ItzaFineDay.

Can climate change cause migration and conflict in the future?

Reuveny says "yes". The evidence of impact scale is worrying already; history is there to suggest it will repeat itself.

If sea levels rise by just 1 meter more than 260 million people will be exposed to flooding. (Yes, that was two hundred and sixty million individual humans) Most of these Asians but at least some 14 million Europeans too. These people will have to move somewhere. Imagine something like 130 Katrinas but with permanent land loss and in countries less able to cope with the situation. Bitterly ironic since climate change is largely caused by rich, developed countries.

A set of initiatives for alleviation or solution is also proposed, but I dare not post it uncensored in the mere blogosphere. But Reuveny feels it's safe to assume...
"[...] the expected cost of climate change-induced ecomigration and conflict will likely rise quickly [...]"


Reuveny, R. (2008). Ecomigration and Violent Conflict: Case Studies and Public Policy Implications. Human Ecology, 36(1), 1-13. DOI: 10.1007/s10745-007-9142-5

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