Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Janani Vivekanada

Janani Vivekanada

Janani Vivekananda is a Senior Project Manager at adelphi where she specialises in climate change and peacebuilding. In this role, she focuses on the areas of peace and security, vulnerability, adaptation, conflict and risk analyses, conflict and resources, and urban governance.

Feb 28th 2017 by Janani Vivekanada

Climate and Security in Urban Spaces—And the Role Migration Plays

Cities are already facing the brunt of a range of interacting risks from criminal violence, terrorism and war to demographic pressures, to climate and environmental change. Coastal megacities are especially at risk given the specific impacts of climate change they face, such as sea-level rise, increased storm frequency and severity, and destruction to infrastructure such as ports, rail and road networks. These risks are amplified as urban populations become ever larger. All these risks can lead to the loss of livelihoods as well as significant loss of life itself. What’s more, the interaction of these risks could exceed the existing coping capacity of communities and governments and contribute to an increase in insecurity and possibly violent conflict.

But it is not all negative. Megacities face both challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization and urban growth. Cities can absorb new entrants and provide them in many cases with employment. But at present, the informal nature of those economies does not provide much in the way of governance, stability or predictability. In a new briefer on the issue, co-authored by Neil Bhatia for the Centre for Climate Security, we look at the implications of climate change and urbanization in two megacities, Lagos, Nigeria and Karachi, Pakistan.

Karachi and Lagos – three risk pathways:

Despite increased attention on megacities within climate change and development policy processes, relatively little attention has been paid to the potential for environmentally-induced instability in coastal megacities. Current trends, including rapid population growth, land use patterns, and increasing climate impacts, suggest the costs of inaction in these urban areas are rising.

Despite increased attention on megacities within climate change (...), relatively little attention has been paid to the potential for environmentally-induced instability in coastal megacities."

Karachi and Lagos clearly illustrate how our new urban reality is made more precarious by a nexus of population growth without land-use enforcement and basic public services, intensifying climate impacts, and divisive politics, which has the potential to undermine their aspirations to be regional economic hubs, and could, over time, lead to conflict.

Based on the present socio-political and economic risks faced by Lagos and Karachi, the impact of climate change could lead to violence through three indirect pathways:

● The adverse impacts of climate change on livelihoods in other parts of each country, such as drought in the agricultural belts and more frequent storm surges and sea level rise along the coastlines, will lead to resource shortages, make livelihoods less viable, and will lead to increased migration to urban hubs. Migration in and of itself is not a risk, however there needs to be far better governance and infrastructure coping capacity to peacefully manage migration in these already fragile urban centers.

● Both cities are highly vulnerable to climate change-related flooding yet have inadequate provisions for their rapidly growing populations and do not have the governance capacity or political will to make appropriate plans to cope with the dual challenge of storm and migrant surges.

● Poor responses to environmental risk in both contexts, particularly to those in informal settlements, increases grievances between communities and the government. In the short term, it is unlikely that climate stresses will lead to large scale conflict or instability in either city, but there are already signs of increased crime and political grievances in urban hubs which could intensify and escalate over time or suddenly in the face of a sudden shock. Early signs of social discontent linked to climate change are visible in both cities, although interwoven with economic, social, and political grievances.

Whether these risk pathways evolve over time into scenarios more ripe for conflict or can be resolved without recourse to violence will hinge on the effectiveness of government actions to reduce vulnerability and alleviate the sense of injustice already felt by climate-affected communities. This is the case not just in megacities, but also in the regions from which people migrate from.

What can cities do to be more resilient to climate and security risks?

From the perspective of risk management and future urban planning in megacities, it is vital to understand the particular dynamic and risks relating to climate change and urban resilience. Climate change is already presenting serious challenges to urban areas. Facing this challenge requires more resources and political will than what has been deployed to-date. It will also require innovations in governance. At the moment, the international system is set up to act on a state-to-state basis. But as cities grow in population, significance, and risk profile, it is clear that the international system needs to get better at working with and between cities. This is happening – albeit slowly. City leaders are forging networks within and across international boundaries to address shared problems, including climate change. However, national governments and multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and UN system, are not organized to work with city-level governance mechanisms. They are still organized around working with nation states, which limits scope for devolved decision making and consultative engagement at city level. We therefore need a sustained push in the promotion of transnational climate change governance.

There are though some reasons for (cautious) optimism. Many cities have the power, the expertise, and the resourcefulness to continue to take meaningful climate action. More than ever before, they are at the forefront of the issue of climate change as leaders, innovators, and practitioners. However, in already fragile contexts, this dynamism and scope for engagement to address climate risks is hindered by weak capacity, lack of political will, and the perception that climate change is not a priority. In terms of practical responses, physical efforts to address climate impacts such as sea level rise need to be coupled with attention to socio-economic factors such as social networks, livelihoods, and efforts to enhance governance. It is also critical to ensure support for rural as well as urban informal livelihoods – since rural livelihoods are where many of the most vulnerable earn their living and where economic stress and the push to migrate to urban centers are first felt.

Any strategy must ultimately encompass grievances such as inequality, marginalization, and the disenfranchisement of youth – especially men. But to ensure that policy responses genuinely address the complex risks posed to megacities by climate change, we urgently need a better understanding the links between migration, urban resilience, climate change, and fragility. This issue is a major blind-spot within the research community and as a result is largely overlooked in policy and programming. Whilst there is a lot more attention on the perceived negative implications of migration on national security, the relationship between climate change, migration, cities, and conflict needs to be understood if attempts to promote sustainable urban development are to build resilience to climate change and to conflict in an increasingly mobile and urban world.


Image Credits: Manora Beach, Karachi / Faisal Saeed under CC BY 2.0 // Laguna, Lagos / Rainer Wozny under CC BY-SA 2.0