Climate change can trigger a large influx of refugees, as expected. But according to Ingrid Boas and colleagues, many people prefer to stay or return home despite the threat of rising sea levels. This NRC article argues for a more nuanced approach to understanding the relationship between environmental and climate change along with the consequences for migration.
This article is the English translation of the NRC Opinion piece, "Honkvast, ondanks het stijgende water", published Feb 28, 2022. Read the original article in Dutch here.
Homebound, despite rising water levels
After last summer’s flood in Valkenburg, the population did not leave the area en masse. Homes were flooded, household items were washed away and some homes are still uninhabitable to this day. However, most of the inhabitants were temporarily evacuated at most. People who were displaced tended to return as soon as possible.
As part of our research programme on climate im/mobilities, we investigated their motives, and it turns out: Local residents are extremely attached to their region, and some have become more rather than less attached to their home. A new sense of solidarity has arisen, and many people are wondering whether another location could even provide a guarantee against the effects of climate change.
You are probably thinking: we’re talking about the Netherlands. We have the means to protect areas and adapt to rising water levels. Surely the situation is very different in poorer countries where people will be much more likely to move to safer places. However, our research shows that the differences between poor and rich countries are not as great as you might expect. A few examples:
Tuvalu, an island nation in the Pacific, is very vulnerable to rises in sea level. All the same, the local population is fighting against the label of climate refugees that is often given to them. They don't want to be regarded as victims, but as warriors. Their main focus is not on drawing attention to climate migration, or asking for help so they can leave. Instead, they want help so they can reinforce their islands and protect the land of their ancestors.
Mobility is the norm in Bangladesh. In the dynamic delta area, it is very common for people to temporarily head to the city to look for work. At least for men. This often happens as a reaction to the erosion that is eating away at the coastline and making houses disappear into the river, or after one of the cyclones that regularly affect the area. As soon as an area becomes better protected, for example by means of a new dike, people return, strengthening their homes and bringing new activity to the area. The urge to return appears greater than the desire to build a new life elsewhere.
The Chilean village of Villa Santa Lucía in Patagonia suffered a severe mudslide in 2017 as a result of extreme rainfall. This will probably start to happen more often as a result of climate change. The government therefore designated a new location for the village, giving the local population a subsidy to allow them to resettle. However, the residents simply don’t want to leave. They regard the original village as integral to their identity, with the risk of mudslides being part of the deal of living in Patagonia.
What lessons can we draw from this?
Firstly, involve the affected groups in the climate-related plans for their future. The fate of the Tuvaluans is currently primarily determined by the international discussions on climate refugees. It is important, of course, to offer people in need a safe place to live elsewhere. However, create scope for different perspectives and allow people to participate in the discussion on shaping their future. For example, this means that climate adaptation donors should not be too quick to write off a region.
Secondly, realise that a planned resettlement of a village or community can have a downside. There are already examples of successful relocations in which the community itself took the lead, e.g. in Panama, Fiji, Bangladesh or Alaska. Here, however, the desire to look for a safer place to live came from the community itself. Motivating a village to relocate purely on the basis of the climate risk can be problematic. The vulnerability of a community is determined not only by climate change, but also by cultural cohesion, employment, resilience and social connections. These factors must also be taken into account in resettlement policies.
Thirdly, although being attached to home can be a desire, it can also stem from a lack of choice. Many women, children and elderly people in Bangladesh are unable to relocate (temporarily) with the men who are looking for work in the cities. This can increase their vulnerability, for example if they are left in dangerous situations with storms and floods. In this specific cultural context, it is therefore important to pay more attention to increasing mobility.
For many years, research has been carried out on the relationship between environmental and climate change along with the consequences for migration. It is often assumed that there will be significant migration flows. However, this relationship does not appear to be quite so clear-cut in practice. Climate mobility appears to have many faces. This requires an inclusive approach, with more attention being paid to the desire of local communities not to leave.