Climate induced migration

As a developing country Pakistan must receive financial and capacity-building support to fight climate change

Climate induced migration


was seven months pregnant when we had to migrate due to drought in our village (Sanghar, Sindh). I travelled on camel back and we worked as labourers. As a result, I lost my unborn baby. My family took a Rs 10,000 loan from a landowner for my medical check-up and treatment. I went into depression after losing my baby.”

Rajju, who belongs to a minority group, has never been to school. She migrated from the rural to urban area of Tharparkar along with six family members. During 2017-19, her family migrated to three locations. Two locations, Shahadapur and Kunri Mirch Mandi were 310 kilometres and 70 kilometres away from their original locations, respectively.

She had four children aged between 5 and 10 years, which made the migration very painful. She says her children also got sick due to the unavailability of safe water, food and basic health facilities. Many other women migrating from rural to urban areas during droughts in Tharparkar had similar stories to tell. Not only was their own health compromised but livestock also died due to the lack of fodder and water.

In the year 2020, the monsoon in Pakistan lasted for three months and affected the whole country, particularly Sindh between mid-August and mid-September. Sindh accounted for almost all the 810,000 new disaster displacements recorded nationwide during the year.

In September 2020, the provincial government declared a state of emergency in the affected districts. Some of the province’s most fertile land was flooded, disrupting the livelihoods of mostly poor rural communities. In recent decades, coastal communities in the province have been forced to move further inland as land loss caused by seawater intrusion and salination undermines their livelihoods. Increased annual rainfall and a series of cyclones have aggravated the situation further.

Monsoons and droughts are not the only causes of migration. Rising sea levels, floods, heatwaves and forest fires across the country too drive these. Due to increasing temperatures more and more people are migrating from villages to urban areas. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a total of 806,000 people were forced to migrate due to climate change in the year 2020.

Pakistan is the 3rd country on the list of disasters-related migration after India and Bangladesh, and if global warming continues to increase it is estimated that around 2 million people will be migrating by the year 2050.

In 2010, floods in Pakistan affected 20 million people, destroying crop worth $1 billion. About 14 million people were forced to relocate temporarily, and 200,000 moved to internal displacement camps. Some relocated permanently.

In 2010, floods affected 20 million people, destroying crops worth $1 billion. About 14 million people were forced to relocate temporarily, and 200,000 moved to internal displacement camps. Some relocated permanently. 

Floods followed in 2012, 2014 and 2015 and damaged infrastructure, including homes, schools, roads and railway tracks. Agricultural lands, as well as crops, were destroyed. According to the research conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Muzaffargarh in the Punjab and Mithi, Tharparkar, in Sindh, migration was common among landless farm labour in rural areas, particularly during floods and droughts.

According to the study, migration is a painful process, especially for women, children, and the elderly. Pregnant women tend to lose their unborn children or die after delivery due to malnutrition. Most women and men end up as low-wage labour and struggle to meet daily needs. There is little to no help by the relevant institutions when it comes to evacuation, providing food, shelter, and transportation.

Depression is high among women during migration. They have to leave schools and end up marrying early which puts them in greater danger due to complications from pregnancy at an early age. Most of the migrants are poor and are trapped in debt. They frequently have to sell their livestock for low prices in a disaster to ensure survival. Climate induced migration also pushes women and girls to face issues of privacy and sexual harassment in addition to health issues.

The understanding of interactions between climate change and migration as well as the contribution of migration as a response strategy remains a big gap in literature on climate-induced migration in Pakistan. This gap must be addressed to better respond to the plight of the people, who may simply be branded as “economic migrants”.

Data is often limited and it is not always possible to attribute an extreme rainfall event or a drought to climate change. Therefore, it is difficult to call people being displaced due to such events as “climate migrants”. This points to the need for more robust research rather than being in denial about climate-induced migration.

Both federal and provincial governments must recognise the growing problem of climate-induced migration, invest in building resilience and protect migrants through targetted policy interventions at both source and destination sites. To uphold the rights and dignity of affected communities, the governments must ensure basic services and social protection to vulnerable communities, particularly to women, whose unpaid care work increases due to such migration.

The governments should build community halls/ camps for the temporary stay of migrants where safety of everyone, including women, can be ensured during disasters. Women caretakers should be posted there to take up the harassment issues.

Climate-induced migration must be a part of forums like South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Budapest Process at the regional level. Regional cooperation entails common policies, codes and responses besides sharing of information and learning from one another. The rights of the people who are forced to migrate across national borders must be legally protected.

Being a developing country, Pakistan must receive financial and capacity building support. Multilateral institutions, such as Taskforce for Displacement, Global Forum on Migration and Development, and United Nation’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration must rigorously work to protect and strengthen the rights of climate-induced migrants.

Other stakeholders, such as the UN agencies, international organisations, labour unions and civil society organisations, too, have key roles to play in identifying gaps and advocating all aspects of climate-induced migration, including rights and gender-based approaches. They must invest in raising awareness and building capacity of government authorities, institutions, and other stakeholders. The media also needs to be encouraged to report more widely and consistently on the issue of climate migrants.

The writer is an environmentalist based in the United States. She is also a visiting senior research associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. She tweets at @S_Maryam8

Climate induced migration