Dr. Rathana Peou

There is a scientific consensus that few places in the world will experience the range of effects and the severity of the impacts of Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific.

At the “First, Do No Harm: Avoiding Maladaptation to Climate Change” conference at the Rockfeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy, I, along with other delegates from different countries, were forced to reflect how environmental induced migration is linked to the broader debates of adaptation and development.

The conference also brought to light that there is knowledge gap on what maladaptation is and how it is integral in the nexus of climate induced migration in the Asia Pacific region. A special group composed of 16 international participants from different countries and field of expertise, also called iMACC (International Initiative on Maladaptation to Climate Change), led the discussion on maladaptation and how countries can address it. 

iMACC defined Maladaptation as “an adaptation process that results in increased vulnerability to climate change and/or undermines capacity for future adaptation.”

The group presented different case studies in order to demonstrate the reality of maladaptation. Many case studies showed that inadequate resettlement, land management and resource distribution are some of the reasons that the adaptation capacity of communities, families and individuals are decreased, sometimes forcing them to move. 

There are two cases of maladaptation that, I find, are worth focusing on, because they examine environmental induced migration which is being mitigated by the state.

Case Study 1: Bangladesh, Land uses and specially water bodies’ management in the context of population pressure/ high density

The first study looks at the capacity of people to move or to be forced to move, and suggests an analytical framework to understand the outcomes of climate induced migration in Asia and Pacific.

The first example deals with the filling up of low lying lands including the small “khals” (small canals or streams) in and around the city of Dhaka, due to the high population pressure and high urban growth.  It became a common practice that even the rivers around the city are being threatened.  

The practice poses several disasters risks as it increasing the vulnerability to water logging and/or flooding in both the short and long term in the poor- urban communities. 

During monsoons, with heavy rainfall, low lying areas are already vulnerable to flooding, but now, even the relatively higher grounds are also at risk. The rainwater will have nowhere to go as a result of all surrounding water bodies being filled up, thus decreasing the amount of retention in those areas.

Apart from flooding, maladaptation also poses a great risk on land subsidence and/or liquefaction in the event of an earthquake. Prof. Dr Mehedi Ahmed Ansari, director of Bangladesh Network Office for Urban Safety (BNUS), said in an interview with the Independent, "More than 40 per cent of Dhaka’s land is filled up on marshy lands, and high-rises on those areas are at high risk of a sudden collapse."

These filled lands are at a great danger from earthquakes due to soil’s liquefaction, ground subsidence, and soil resonance. Soil expert Prof Dr AMM Shafiullah, said that when it rains heavily in the monsoon after a long break, groundwater pushes rainwater upwards and causes a movement of the ground. Seasonal migration is then amplified in those pre-urban areas forcing families and individual to flee during the rainy season for a period of 2 to 3 months. This phenomenon induced by a mismanagement of the land puts at risk the most vulnerable urban groups --  the slum dwellers.

Case Study 2: Vietnam, Population resettlements in anticipation of climate change impacts 

In the second case study, Dr. Francois Gemenne detailed the Living With Floods (LWF) programme initiated by the Vietnamese government for populations living in the Mekong Delta (for more information Some villages have already been resettled to higher grounds with the goals of reducing the vulnerability of populations by reducing their exposure to dangers. The move, instead, resulted to an increased vulnerability because of the disturbance in their livelihoods, the breach of social cohesion, and the massive violations of human rights. 

The action is clearly maladaptive in the short-term, but could still prove adaptive in the long run, once the livelihoods and social cohesion have been rebuilt.

The question now is, do these two examples cited above qualify as maladaptation under the definition reached at the iMACC Conference? 

This is certainly fuel to stimulate a lively discussion, which could neatly link up environmentally induced migration with a broader frame of analysis that transposes the current debate about human mobility to the current in the current Climate Change and Migration adaptation and development debates. 

In order to facilitate what I hope will be a dynamic debate please find (below) key questions to help us think “outside the box”:

  1. Is environmental induced migration just an outcome of maladaptation or something esle?
  2. Is environmental induced migration related to climate change hazards or a result of broader global changes (e.g., development)?
  3. When it comes to environmental induced migration, can blame (and perhaps penalties and compensation) be apportioned for the underlying notions of Maladaptation? 

This editorial was first published on Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 04 March 2013.


SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action