Children fill containers with drinking water at the Al-Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. In order to address climate change and migration challenges, a strong outcome is needed in Paris,  write SIWI Director Karin Lexen and Anders Jägerskog, counselor at Sida. Photo by: Mustafa Bader / CC BY-SA

Some 500,000 people have migrated into Europe this year as a result of conflict in the Middle East and Africa — the worst migration crisis since World War II. The civil war in Syria has been the single biggest driver of the surge with more than 4 million people having fled the conflict, according to UNHCR. Sweden has taken in the highest proportion of refugees in Europe this year (relative to population), receiving some 80,000 people in the past two months alone, and has therefore decided to reallocate some of its budget to help with their resettlement.

Even if government funding is reallocated, in Sweden or elsewhere, to cater for costs associated with refugees, there is no doubt that increased efforts are needed to address not only the pressing humanitarian situation but also the root causes of the refugee crisis.

An important number of these causes are found in the nexus between climate change, water scarcity, poor governance and conflict. Climate change mitigation and adaptation, improved water governance and conflict prevention are arguably key to addressing the root causes of the refugee migration from areas such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A strong link between climate change and migration?

In order to answer this question it is important to make a distinction: climate change is essentially water change.

An increase in global temperatures of more than 2 degrees Celsius will dramatically affect the hydrological cycle — leading to the increased melt-off of glaciers, decreased permafrost (potentially contributing to more greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere), and changing water quantity and quality. Greater climate variability will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events — such as floods, droughts and cyclones — and raise sea levels, therefore threatening low-lying nations. It will also increase rainfall variability, reducing the predictability of monsoons, prolonging droughts in semi-arid regions and reducing water storage in snow and ice.

This climate-driven water change, combined with an already rising global demand for freshwater resources (up by 55 percent by 2050 according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), increases the risk of food insecurity, social instability, potentially violent conflict, and in turn, migration.

For example, when droughts get prolonged as a result of climate change, farmers may be forced to migrate to urban centers in search of livelihoods. This is especially true in situations where proper water governance, including proper storage (to cater for inter and intra seasonal variability) as well as efficient irrigation systems are absent or weak. This was the situation in Syria prior to the uprising and war, which lead to a migration from rural areas to urban centres.

The climate agreement will seek to address part of this challenge — by setting targets to reduce emissions, and setting the path for resilience-building. Both have water at their core. For example, many efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions depend on reliable access to water resources, including renewable energy — the expansion of which depends largely on access to water on all levels. Additionally, most energy investments are also long-term infrastructure, with operational lifetimes spanning decades. Those that require reliable access to water resources will therefore be affected by future changes in water availability.

Water stress: An underlying conflict multiplier

Water scarcity, or stress, is not the only driver of migration, but there is, without question, an indirect correlation between climate change, drought and migration. It aggravates existing social tensions and political instability, and will likely add additional pressures on the states and regions that are already fragile and conflict-prone, as noted above in the Syria case.

Hydro-climate disasters already account for nearly 95 percent of all people affected by disasters, and have caused over 60 percent of all damage incurred worldwide. The impact of water variability and insecurity is so significant to a host of issues that any plan to tackle climate change, migration (and a host of other issues) without sustainable water management at its core, can only ever be that — a plan.

In fact, water should be viewed as a connector. Almost too obvious to be seen, it connects policy areas, economic sectors, ecosystems, and societies. Its importance to both climate adaptation and mitigation cannot be underestimated, and makes it a key channel through which opportunities for cooperation can grow.

There is rarely a single cause to challenges such as the migration crisis. The best solutions therefore can’t be developed in silos, and water is an ideal medium through which to facilitate this. In Paris and beyond, the development community needs to work with actors across sectors to develop innovative, collaborative solutions that tackle the root causes of global challenges — water scarcity and variability included.

In order to address climate change and migration challenges, a strong outcome is needed in Paris: an agreement, and plan, that includes proper integration of water into both climate change adaptation and mitigation and a continued commitment to tackle the root causes of migration such as climate change, conflict, rights and, participatory governance.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the authors

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    Karin Lexén

    Karin Lexén is director of SIWI’s World Water Week, and its prizes, including the Stockholm Water Prize and Stockholm Junior Water Prize. She leads SIWI’s engagement on international processes, such as the UN’s development goals and the global climate policy processes, driving SIWI’s advocacy of water issues in the international environmental politics arena.
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    Anders Jägerskog

    Anders Jägerskog is counselor for regional water issues in the MENA region at the Embassy of Sweden in Amman, Jordan. He is also associate professor of peace and development at Gothenburg University. He was formerly head of the Transboundary Water Management Unit at the SIWI where he also served as the program manager of the U.N. Development Program Shared Waters Partnership. The views expressed by Jägerskog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency or the Swedish Government.