Climate-induced migration could intensify Asia’s urbanization woes

Flooding in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Rezowan / GFDL

Humans have migrated for as long as the history books can record — mostly to seek improved standards of living through higher-paid work. A key driver of migration going forward will be climate change, either directly due to the impacts of climate-related hazards and disasters, such as storms, flooding, and drought, or indirectly by accentuating or causing conflicts.

According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, internal migration in 2017 was overwhelmingly caused by weather-related events or natural disasters in South Asia and the East Asia and Pacific regions. And the World Bank’s 2018 “Groundswell” report predicts there will be over 140 million people moving within their own countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America due to climate by 2050, if urgent action isn’t taken to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.


Given that cities and urban hubs in these regions are already under pressure to provide services for residents, there is concern that climate-induced migration could cause further strain, particularly in slums, or informal settlements. The growth in informal settlements with limited access to education, health care, and water is resulting in greater inequality and sometimes conflict. The result: 130 million people living in informal settlements or slums in South Asia alone.

Some countries, such as Bangladesh — one of the nations most at risk due to large populations living in low-lying regions prone to flooding and saltwater intrusion — have begun to integrate migration into climate adaptation plans and are discussing creative solutions. There is also a broader shift toward accepting migration as a proactive adaptation measure when done voluntarily. Beyond this is a need to also expand funding for programs aimed at providing services for — and integrating new populations into — Asia’s cities.

“Climate migration is a reality, but it doesn’t have to be a crisis that is dealt with just by those communities who are most at risk,” said Kanta Kumari Rigaud, lead environmental specialist at the World Bank and one of the authors of the “Groundswell” report. “It’s an inclusive process that involves planning and anticipation.”

In-migration influx?

Decisions to migrate, either voluntarily or involuntarily, are often multifaceted, and designating climate as a determining factor is difficult. At the same time, there is evidence that around climate-connected extreme weather events, such as drought, floods, or storms, migration does take place.

In the 2018 report, the World Bank identified cities and regions in Bangladesh as potential in- and out-migration zones. The idea was that this data could be used by planners to inform interventions and prepare for potential in-migration.

“We identified climate in-migration hot spots due to better conditions in terms of water availability and crop productivity in the West of the country,” said Viviane Clement of the World Bank. “These areas are also already supporting large numbers of people — what does that mean in terms of planning differently, to accommodate growing numbers of people?”

“Climate migration is a reality, but it doesn’t have to be a crisis that is dealt with just by those communities who are most at risk.”

— Kanta Kumari Rigaud, lead environmental specialist, World Bank

In a report released in December 2020, titled “Costs of Climate Inaction,” anti-poverty NGO ActionAid gave a pessimistic forecast for the future in South Asia if climate migration isn’t addressed. The report found that climate change is already directly displacing people or accentuating hardship resulting in distress migration. Worryingly, it estimated that even if countries meet greenhouse gas targets based on existing pledges, the region may still see some 62.9 million people become climate migrants by 2050.

One concern highlighted by ActionAid is that many climate-induced migrants will end up living in informal settlements. The growth in slums has already stretched resources thin in many Asian cities.

“One of the key challenges for cities that are confronted with a sudden influx of people is to what extent they can provide services,” said Rogier van den Berg, director of urban development at the World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Integration issues: The challenges of in-migration

Since 2015, the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia Partnership, or UCRSEA — a joint collaboration between the University of Toronto in Canada and several institutions in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos — has been conducting research focused on understanding how urbanization impacted various communities in different ways.

“Migration can undermine people’s rights,” said Joanna Kocsis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto and one of the leads at UCRSEA. “In Vietnam, ethnic minorities who migrate from the North to Hanoi, once they are in Hanoi, they are basically undocumented and don’t have access to any legal rights or infrastructure and have to rely on slumlords who are re-renting them places.”

Ethnic minorities often face cultural challenges too. According to Helvetas Myanmar, a development organization, migrants from Shan state face difficulties integrating in cities due to language barriers, while migrants from Rakhine state — where an ongoing conflict has resulted in a massive refugee crisis that some believe has links to climate change — face stigma.

Gender also plays a role in Myanmar, with women especially vulnerable.

“Migrant female workers don’t get maternity leave and have to quit if they get pregnant,” said Hnin Phyu Phyu Aye, skills and migration development adviser at Helvetas Myanmar. “Women cannot bring children to work, and there is no service for child care. “Working as sex workers or domestic workers becomes an option for their livelihood if they are unemployed.”

In Bangladesh, economic stress due to climate change making agriculture less productive, for example, can lead to men migrating to cities or abroad, leaving women and children in rural areas where they face heightened health and safety risks.

“The climate vulnerabilities in Bangladesh are mostly in the coastal areas,” Clement said. “We need to think about what happens if those localities that are already having seawater intrusion also have more children and women.”

Planning and equity

With resources limited to address even immediate risks, such as by building of sea walls or improving water management, dedicated money and human capacity to plan for climate-induced migration are lacking.

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“Governments understand the importance of acting proactively and putting into place policies now that might be able to hedge risk around climate displacement, but in reality it's hard to implement without vast financial resources,” said Kayly Ober, program manager for climate displacement at Refugees International. Climate-related disasters are already adding to this challenge.

There are some bright spots, though. Organizations such as Refugees International are focusing more on advocating for preventive measures such as preemptive and planned relocation, while groups such as Helvetas Myanmar are starting to address integration and livelihood issues of migrants within cities. At the national level, Bangladesh has used the World Bank’s 2018 report to begin looking at how it can be prepared for potentially inevitable in-country migration due to climate change.

“Bangladesh has been one of the countries that has done the most,” Rigaud said, pointing to the Perspective Plan for 2041, which recognizes that populations may move away from coastal areas and cites the need to make plans for their integration and education.

“The level of preparedness that they have mobilized is quite tremendous in some ways. But the real test is when the rubber hits the road.”

While still being discussed, there are some potentially creative solutions too, such as proactively developing education and job creation hubs within climate in-migration areas to attract families from out-migration areas. WRI is looking to help cities deal with the equity challenge, releasing a series of papers as part of its Cities for All program on how equitable access to core urban services, such as education, water, and health, can help achieve higher economic productivity.

Ober said she hopes a recent executive order from President Joe Biden that committed to conducting a report on climate displacement will help spur greater funding and focus from the U.S. government.

“The scope is there [in the report] to talk about climate change adaptation, resilience, and financing around migration issues,” Ober said.

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About the author

  • Nithin Coca

    Nithin Coca is a Devex Contributing Reporter who focuses on social, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.