The role of Migration as an adaptation strategy in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region

Author: 
Kiran Hunzai

The environmental migration discourse has been overtly focused on the impacts of environmental variability on migration patterns. However, the role of migration in the context of adaptation such as financial and social remittances, and the influence of social networks, has received little empirical research attention. 

The notion that human settlement patterns may respond to the climate is not new. A significant body of literature indicates that human settlement and migration patterns had strong linkages with the changes in climatic conditions, related both to the shifts in climatic norms and abrupt changes. 

Migration should not be considered as a simple or automatic response to a singular risk, climate-related or otherwise. Many factors combined influence human spatial behaviour, and migration sensitivities with adaptation strategies vary greatly among regions and social groups. 

Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region that extends across parts of eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. In recent years the population of the region has been confronted with rapid demographic, socio-economic, and political changes. Mountain areas in this region are particularly vulnerable to climate change and a range of environmental shocks and hazards. 

Environmental change affecting livelihood and consequently the out-migration in this region include degradation of land, erosion, reduction of soil fertility, landslides and natural disasters. The geographical and climatic conditions, together with rugged and steep topography, weak geological formation, erratic rainfall, and earthquake fault lines create extreme vulnerabilities to natural hazards. The high population density and lack of awareness of different natural hazards also create conditions in which the impacts of disasters become more detrimental.  

A recent study conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)* across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region examined the patterns of labour migration in rural settlements that were exposed to water-related hazards (i.e. drought, flood, flash flood, and water shortage). In this study, the environmental variables comprised of the type of water hazard, natural hazard proneness of livelihoods prior to migration, and the impact of water hazard on owned agricultural land. The study reported that the likelihood that household members would migrate for work was higher in settlements exposed to rapid onset water hazard than those exposed to a slow onset of water-related hazards. In settlements that had experienced drought or water shortage, the likelihood of labour migration was higher in settlements affected by very severe hazards rather than those affected by less severe ones. In flood or flash flood affected settlements, a comparison between the households where agricultural land had been damaged by the hazard to those where it had not been, showed that members of the former were less likely to migrate for work.  

The study also concluded that remittances have also been used to procure food and other basic needs during or in aftermath of a disaster and re-establish livelihoods and rebuild lost assets. In some cases, remittances have been used for disaster preparedness such as strengthening of housing quality or procurement of boats in flood-affected communities and buying irrigation equipment in drought-affected settlements.  

Besides remittance cash, migrants also bring back social remittances – ideas, behaviours, identities, social capital, knowledge, and skills – from destination to origin communities (Levitt 1998). Globally, their role in promoting innovation, entrepreneurship, community and family formation, and political integration has been widely documented. However, knowledge gaps still exist in terms of their role in building adaptation to climate change in general, and specifically the role of social remittances in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.  

*ICIMOD is a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing centre based in Kathmandu, Nepal

About the author:Ms Hunzai is from the Hunza Valley in Northern Pakistan. She has a Masters degree in rural development with a focus on community based research techniques from the University of Sussex, England. Ms Hunzai has been working in the Hindu Kush Region with various organizations including WFP, ICIMOD and IFAD for the past five years. She joined ICIMOD as a Poverty Analyst in September 2009 until January 2013, her main research focused on determining the causes of poverty in the eight member countries of Hindu Kush-Himalayan countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. Ms. Hunzai is currently based in Manila.

 

This Editorial was first published on the Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 4 September 2013.