Migration, Loss and Damage and Regional Cooperation

Sujatha Byravan

It is becoming increasingly clear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions through mitigation is not going to take place at the pace that is required to keep average global temperatures below 2oC. The World Bank, the International Energy Agency and other organisations in their recent studies are beginning an effort to understand the kind of world we can expect to live in which perhaps may be 3, 4 or even 6oC warmer than the pre-industrial world.

Recognising that loss and damage (L&D) associated with climate change is becoming significant, a Work Programme was set up at the Cancun Climate Change Conference (COP-16) in order to consider what kinds of approaches could be taken to tackle the various issues that are likely to arise and that fall under the umbrella of L&D. How should its contours be defined? What kinds of institutional mechanisms do we need to have in place? How do we begin anticipating and reducing risk and the impact of L&D? Details on the progress of these developments may be found here.

It has not been difficult for many to agree that impacts from disasters related to extreme weather events would fall under L&D. Gradual changes from climate change such as sea level rise and desertification would also lead to loss and damage. Economic losses could be recognised, but non-economic ones pose a bigger challenge for agreement.

A few of us working on a project on this topic, and focussing on loss and damage in South Asia, realised after conversations with experts that the notion of L&D is in itself difficult for industrialised countries to accept because it suggests that there is likely to be a compensation mechanism for loss and damage. This further implies liability and responsibility for historical or cumulative emissions. In short, both monetary and non-monetary compensation, in the words of another expert, are "toxic."

But it is inescapable that there will be loss of land, loss of nation states for many small island nations, destruction of ecosystems and migration that is temporary or permanent; migration that is planned or unplanned. For the most part, migration induced by environmental changes that accompany climate change is expected to be within the same country, but the pressure to migrate across the border would intensify depending on the viability of the affected nation-state, the numbers of people vulnerable, and their capacity to adapt. For a number of small island states, countries with long low-lying coastlines and those with delta regions where most of the population resides in the low elevation coastal zone, migration will be triggered and exacerbated as the effects of warming intensify. While, the notion that migration in certain situations could be part of an adaptation strategy has already gained acceptance in policy circles, any policy resolution that makes immigration rights a significant part of non-monetary compensation for loss and damage is not likely to take place in the near future.

Nevertheless, some civil society groups have raised the issue of compensation for losses that are economic and for non-economic losses, and for the right to migrate to be considered under loss and damage. This is not a new idea and has been suggested by others including this author as a mechanism that links capability and responsibility with cumulative emissions.

Many experts regard the need to marry what might be politically viable with expectations or “asks” and there is surely a certain logic to this way of thinking. Even those who have argued from the perspective of human rights point out, quite rightly, that people migrate for many reasons. The proximate cause for migration is usually livelihoods and slow changes due to global warming would probably not be perceived as the reason for migration. It would be difficult to separate migration as a result of climate change from migration due to other reasons.

The importance of regional partnerships

The Nansen initiative, launched by the Norwegian and Swiss governments at the UNHCR’s Ministerial meeting in 2011, aims to create new norms for cross-border migration relating to disasters and climate change. While this initiative is only a small beginning, UNISDR through the Hyogo Framework is developing a framework for disaster risk reduction. In these and other discussions that relate to climate change regional, national and international processes are regarded as important in moving the agenda forward.

Regional agreements are even more important than is recognised by many of us. While nations need to prepare for migration inland from the coasts and from floods and droughts, regional dialogues and agreements should be prioritised. In many cases regions experience the same climatic disaster events (cyclones and floods), share similar weather-related systems (such as monsoons and melting glaciers) and comparable cultural features and histories. For the same reasons, however, they may not have civil neighbourly relationships and that will be a big challenge. In South Asia, for example, while India and Nepal have a relatively relaxed policy on movement between countries, the same cannot be said of the other countries around India.

The issues related to cross-border migration, unfortunately, are almost always viewed through the lens of a national security threat. However, in light of cross-border migration pressure from climate change and increasing disasters, there is a need to develop regional policies on labour, migration, and even adaptation. Training in advance of optional migration or displacement could be useful as would building national capacity to deal with climate change through joint-training institutions for civil servants. National development strategies, such as for instance the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme--NREGA in India, that increase rural livelihoods and thus improve resilience can be shared, perhaps replicated in the region. There can even be a sharing of experiments and experiences that enhance regional food and water security. Developing regional capacity to deal with loss and damage and migration may have greater power and capacity to deliver in the medium term and the long run.

But this does not mean that equity, historical emissions, and responsibility for overuse of ecological space should be abandoned in the international negotiations. In fact regional strength may provide increased regional clout to deal with these. But the reality of climate change effects may overtake the slow speed at which international political processes seem to work. The hope is that regional processes may move faster with benefits accruing to all parties.

Here's a film by Krishnendu Bose on sea level rise in the Sunderbans, which narrates the story of Anjona.

This Editorial was first published on the Asia-Pacific Migration and Environment Network on 2 May 2013.