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Water shocks starting to have greater effect on human migration

The world faces a rising number of water shocks such as day-zero events when the taps will run dry and rainfall variability will be a contributing force in global migration, according to a newly released World Bank report.

Ebb and Flow provides the first-ever global assessment of the impact of water on migration which combines several national and global data sets for the first time. Based on analysis off the largest data set on internal migration ever assembled the report covers nearly half a billion people from 189 population censuses in 64 countries.  

The report notes that in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where 60% of the population live in water-stressed areas, the lack of water is already a vulnerability faced by people in the region, especially those displaced by conflict and their host communities.

It finds that water deficit is linked to 10% of the increase in total migration within countries between 1970 and 2000. By the end of this century, worsening droughts will affect more than 700 million people. Climate shocks will have a disproportionate impact on the developing world, with more than 85% of people affected living in low to middle-income countries. Yet, it is the poor who cannot afford to leave – the report points out that residents of poor countries are four times less like to move than residents of wealthier countries.

As climate change worsens, water shocks worsen and more people are affected

The report draws a link between people leaving a region because of water shocks and their skills level. It posits that migrants who leave regions with lower rainfall and frequent droughts possess lower educational levels and skills than migrant workers who leave for other reasons. This implies lower wages and less access to basic services at their destination, which raises policy implications for receiving cities.

Mari Pangestu, World Bank managing director for development policy and partnerships: “As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continues, climate change is fueling water challenges around the world, which will hit development countries hardest. In cities receiving migrants from rural areas due to rainfall variability, it pays to prevent such crises in an integrated way, to support green, resilient and inclusive development.

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Alongside recent water shocks such as acute shortages in Cape Town, South Africa; Chennai, India; São Paolo, Brazil; and Basra, Iraq, there are dozens of smaller cities contending with similar events who do not make international headlines.

Policies and infrastructure which develop water resilience may be expensive but a drought is even more costly, potentially reducing a city’s economic growth up to 12%. The report highlights ways cities can tackle these challenges. This includes reducing water demand, recycling wastewater, harvesting storm water and redesigning urban areas to resemble sponges that soak up water and store it below ground level.

Tackling water security in post-conflict reconstruction

In the Middle East and North America war, conflict and unemployment are currently more influential drives of migration than any water related event such as a drought. As the effects of climate change intensifies, these historical patterns will no longer dominate. Areas that lack good governance will see climate change exacerbating vulnerabilities and create tension over water resources. This will lead to a vicious cycle of water insecurity and fragility.

Water insecurity is more acutely felt by the millions of forcibly displaced people and their host communities. The estimated 7.6 million refugees in the MENA region (2.7 million hosted in the region) and 12.4 million internally displaced people feeling protracted conflicts are the world’s largest group of forced displacement.

Water is more often a victim than primary source of conflict. Duke University’s Targeting Infrastructure in the Middle East database shows that since 2011 there have been at least 180 instances in which water infrastructure was targeted in conflict in Gaza, Yemen, Syria and Libya. This has left hundreds of thousands without access to water.

The report points out various steps to build water security are thus urgently needed in the MENA region. The protracted crises and water security underscore the need to build off humanitarian interventions and improve policies that promote long-term water security and resilience to water shocks.

Access to water is vital for resilient future

Ferid Belhaj, World Bank vice president for MENA: “As the world’s most water-scarce region, access to water is a daily struggle for millions of people in the MENA region, particularly the most vulnerable. The region also faces the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity – estimated at between 6% and 14% by 2050.

“Ensuring that water is part of the broader humanitarian-development policy discussion and plans is vital for stabilising economies, rebuilding livelihoods, and forging a green, resilient, and inclusive future for all,” said Belhaj.

The report notes that policy makers need to make trade-offs between short-term, uncoordinated measures to respond to immediate water need, and long-term measures needed to address structural water issues. Recognising and managing these trade-offs will help ensure that water risks do not undermine progress toward a sustainable recovery in the MENA region.

Ebb and Flow was funded in part by the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership, a multi-donor trust fund based at the World bank’s Water Global Practice.

Theresa Smith
Theresa Smith is a conference producer for Clarion Events Africa.