The human tsunami (2)

What to do about environmental migration, and climate change as a whole, is entirely bound up in the overall challenge of development, writes Sam Knight, concluding his report from Ghana.

Quite how many people are going to leave the savannahs of northern Ghana has the attention of policymakers in Accra, the country’s capital. The last time the numbers were officially counted was in Ghana’s 2000 census, which showed a total of 700,000 north-south migrants. But William Agyemang-Bonsu, the country’s climate change co-coordinator, believes that there are many more now, with more to come.

“Unless there is serious intervention,” he said, “very serious intervention, I don’t think people in the north will be content to live there. They will definitely migrate.”

Agyemang-Bonsu is concerned both about the places losing migrants and those absorbing them. The impact on Accra is visible. Migrants from the rural north perform the city’s most menial jobs and live in its least healthy slums. Their nickname is kayayei, which means porter. The few who come all the way from Nandom tend to pitch up in Nima, a mixed neighbourhood of Christians and Muslims dominated by a large market with stalls of fish and spices, onions, shoes and drill-bits spilling out into the road.

I visited Nima, and going down slum alleys that were black underfoot – charcoal is put down to soak up occasional floods – I came across women from Nandom brewing beer from millet as if they were at home. We talked about the north, the climate and their reasons for migrating, but looking around, I realised, it didn’t matter.

Once they are in Accra, people from Nandom, whatever their reasons for coming, belong to another, already-established world of good and ill. It is the same across Africa, where urban populations are growing at a hectic 5% a year, and migration from rural interiors to coastal and major cities has been under way for decades.

At the receiving end, environmental migration can be just another flame under a pot of troubles that is already boiling. In Accra, whose population is growing at 4% a year, migrants from the north have to contend with an inadequate water supply, a housing shortage (slum landlords demand rent three years in advance) and their relative lack of education.

They even face new environmental hazards: an ugly irony of environmental migration is that people who leave hostile climates often end up in the ecologically cursed parts of cities, prone to flooding and disease. Late last year, Accra suffered two cholera outbreaks in areas popular with northern migrants.

It is when the negative aspects of environmental migration begin to dovetail with other problems, such as poverty and urban planning, that you wonder how useful it is to consider the issue on its own. And the same goes for possible solutions. In Accra, as in Nandom, the question of what to do about environmental migration, and climate change as a whole, is entirely bound up in the overall challenge of development.

That is how certainly how Agyemang-Bonsu sees it. “You cannot differentiate between adaptation and development,” he said. “Look at the Netherlands compared to Bangladesh. Why are the Dutch able to live even though it is below sea level? If the Netherlands was a developing country like ­Bangladesh, I can assure you they would have moved long ago. But they stay, because they have the capacity.”

This is the real counter-argument to imagining environmental migration as something new and frightening. Although a few corners of the world are facing a future like nothing before, for most threatened communities the last best plan for adapting to climate change looks a lot like what they are trying to achieve anyway: a mature, diverse economy in which survival does not depend on next month’s rainfall. Seen this way, the prospect of environmental migration appears less compelling as a reason to create new international agencies or new refugee laws – one popular proposal – than it does an argument for merging economic and environmental policies that are currently distinct.

It is striking that schemes in Ghana specifically aimed at reversing internal migration – ranging from resettlement to simply laying on buses to take people home – have tended to fail, and policymakers have noticed. Between 2007 and 2009, the European Commission funded a pilot study, known as EACH-FOR, to examine environmental migration in 23 countries and regions around the world.

In its study of Ghana, EACH-FOR advised the government to stop trying to control the movement of people, and instead to focus on the growing poverty gap between north and south and to improve transport links and trade between the two.

This kind of approach doesn’t mean ignoring migration, or the environment, but instead means coming up with development plans that are sensitive to the local conditions of climate change. Ton Dietz calls it “needlework policy”. Dietz is a professor of geography at the University of Amsterdam who has spent the past 10 years studying climate-change adaptation. He was in Nandom during my visit, along with Kees van der Geest, a Dutch PhD student, who carried out the EACH-FOR study of Ghana and has spent the past nine years studying the country’s migration patterns.

Dietz explained that fragile societies facing a worsening climate needed two things above all: a good education system – because the brightest tend to migrate first – and trusted local institutions. Whether financial or political, these must be able to respond quickly to changing conditions: suspending taxes during a drought, for instance, or providing loans or insurance to farmers to buy new seeds if the rains failed. “You don’t need a very strong and wealthy government,” said Dietz. “You need a system that is alert to the signs of the times.”

What Dietz said echoed one of the findings of EACH-FOR: that decisions to migrate from areas under environmental stress are often caused by an accumulation of small crises. “A lot of people said, ‘We just didn’t have any other options,’” said Koko Warner, a research officer at the United Nations University in Bonn, who helped run the study. “So we asked them, ‘Well what if you had had a little bit of micro-­insurance, a little bit of government support, or a relative who could have helped you out?’ And they said, ‘Well in that case it would have been totally different.’”

It is in the realm of these modest acts of assistance that migration reappears in a different, final guise: no longer an act of abandonment, but part of what allows people to stay. Nandom’s exodus means that 90% of households in the district now receive remittances from relatives who have moved to southern Ghana. These make up 10% of a typical household’s income – a small amount, but enough to soften the impact of one more small drama or another. The leaving of some, in other words, means others don’t have to.

The links between those who leave and those who stay in places like Nandom are likely to play a significant role in helping communities adapt to the strains of climate change. There is scant data on the role of remittances in internal migrations, but the power of international remittances – estimated in their hundreds of billions of US dollars, far larger than any development budget – is known. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK think-tank, has shown that money wired from migrant diasporas – instantly, and straight into the hands of victims – can be just as effective as ­government-run recovery efforts in the wake of natural disasters.

After Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala in 2005, migrants sent US$413 million to the disaster area, almost 20 times the amount pledged by governments to the United Nations. Families receiving remittances in northern Pakistan, meanwhile, were almost twice as likely to live in a concrete house when the earthquake struck that same year, killing 73,000 people.

Long-term, the more people and places that are connected to a global network of sympathetic relatives and countrymen, the better they will withstand the shocks and chronic stress of climate change. Migrants stand for the hope, as well as the despair, of communities under threat.

In the real world, no one expects European and other wealthy countries to invite migrants from environmentally traumatised places such as Nandom as a way of helping those communities survive. But the very idea shows how migration will function both as a way of adapting to climate change and as a symbol of the disaster. And that, in the end, is the reason why migration itself is a false target. The deeper problems lie behind.

In Nandom, a community eroding under an unstable climate and the flight of its young, people want migration to stop and they need it to continue. The same priest who told me that society was disintegrating said: “Our people are always searching for something.”

A single person can embody the two outlooks. In Accra, I looked up one of the migrant sons of Leo Yiryel, the old chief I met in Nandom. His name is Eric and he was studying to be an accountant. Eric turned out to be the closest thing to a purely environmental migrant I met in Ghana. He had planned to stay in Nandom and become a commercial farmer until the floods of 2007 changed his mind.

“When I saw the disaster, it scared me,” said Eric, who also admitted his father’s distress at the flight of his children. “He doesn’t say it, but you can see it.”

But now that he was in Accra, Eric could not disguise his excitement. “You do what life offers,” he said. “If life gives you an orange, you make orange juice. But life has given me accounting. I will follow it to its logical conclusion.” He told me he was even considering moving abroad, and at the end of our conversation, he asked me whether there were really no mosquitoes in London. I told him it was true.

“Wow,” he said, and thought about it for a moment. “But they are suffering a credit crunch. So I can’t be a worker in London now.”

Sam Knight is a regular contributor to FT Weekend Magazine.

This article was first published in the FT Weekend Magazine on 20-21 June 2009.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009


Homepage image by zug55