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Climate change impacts on human (im-) mobility in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recent trends and options for policy responses

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By Benjamin Schraven, Stephen Adaawen, Christina Rademacher-Schulz, and Nadine Segadlo

1. Background, introduction and objectives

The African continent is largely characterised by different climatic regimes ranging from high arid to very humid conditions, which remain highly variable and unpredictable. While recurring periods of droughts and climate variability have culminated in the corresponding adaptation of environmental and social systems over the years, the continent remains vulnerable to ongoing global climatic changes. With the majority of agriculture, related rural livelihoods and economies in many parts of the continent that are highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture, it is projected that the impact of climate change in the near future will be enormous. As such, this will have dire implications for food security, health, water availability, stability and economic development for many parts of the continent.

The negative impacts of climate change and related shocks are already manifesting in West, East and Southern Africa. Whilst droughts, water scarcity and rainfall variability have, for example, consistently been pronounced in the West African Sahel, many East African countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and the Darfur region have been grappling with drought-induced famines, loss of livestock due to scarcity of water and pasture, as well as enduring farmer-herder conflicts. Aside from increasing temperatures above the global average in the Southern Africa region, the climate-dependent rural economies in most parts of the SADC region have been severely affected by climate change. In particular, big South African cities like Cape Town and Durban have in recent times been experiencing climate change-induced drought and associated water scarcity.

On the one hand, whilst the sustained mobility of people from one area to the other has traditionally been part of social organisation and experiences of people across societies in Africa, it is widely acknowledged that effects of climate change and related shocks would further induce new waves of increased migration, displacement and planned relocation with the potential to aggravate latent conflicts and the fragile security situation in certain regions of the continent. On the other hand, many vulnerable people and communities could also be “trapped” or unable to migrate as a response due to a lack of financial, social or even physical assets that may be required to facilitate movement.

Despite the relative progress in the efforts at addressing climate change impacts on human mobility at the international level, critical insights in how far and under what circumstances climate change has or will affect vulnerable populations are missing. Otherwise, likely precipitate increases in mobility patterns in East, West and Southern Africa is critical to shaping a development-oriented approach towards human mobility in the context of climate change. Yet, strategic approaches to managing migration, reducing internal displacement and as well, achieving transparent, participatory, and demand-oriented relocation are lacking.

In line with this, GIZ’s Global Programme ‘Human Mobility in the Context of Climate Change’ (GP HMCCC), commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), seeks to address populations severely affected by climate change across several world regions. It is envisaged that the adverse impacts of climate change will, in tandem with other intervening factors, greatly influence human mobility dynamics that have diverse implications for countries in these regions. The study will thus seek to provide an overview of three African regions focusing on three major climate change related slow- and rapid-onset phenomena: (increasing) rainfall variability, flooding and droughts (see box 1 for definitions). It will seek to highlight in how far these phenomena are increasing in frequency and strength, whilst examining the impact on human (im-)mobility.
Specifically, the study will:

1) Identify the main consequences on human (im-) mobility and its challenges for policymakers on a regional level related to these phenomena;

2) Map relevant development sectors in specific countries of the three regions;

3) Develop possible trajectories for development cooperation in relation to the mandate of the GP HMCCC on a regional level.

The aforementioned issues will be examined in the following countries across the three focus regions in Africa.

  • EAST AFRICA: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda

  • WEST AFRICA: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo

  • SOUTHERN AFRICA: Botswana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia

In all, the study will critically examine and engage relevant stakeholders in the various countries across the regions; whilst also developing recommendations on possible trajectories for national and regional policymakers and German development cooperation on how to address issues related to human mobility in the context of climate change.

Definitions of rainfall variability, flooding and drought

Rainfall variability refers to the degree to which rainfall amounts vary across an area or through time – in other words: rainfall variability is made up of a temporal and a spatial component. Rainfall variability is an important characteristic of the climate of an area. As such, rainfall variability does not constitute a natural or climate hazard, but an increase in rainfall variability may lead to a higher probability of water-related hazards like droughts, the drying up of water bodies or heavy rainfall events leading to flood events. These in turn may have adverse consequences for agricultural or generally natural resource-based livelihoods and human security (Warner and Afifi, 2014).

A simple definition of flooding is: water where it is not wanted. Floods occur most commonly from heavy rainfall when natural watercourses lack the capacity to convey water. It can also result from other phenomena, particularly in coastal areas, by a storm surge associated with a tropical cyclone, a tsunami or a high tide. Dam failure, triggered by an earthquake, for instance, will lead to flooding of the downstream area, even in dry weather conditions. Various climatic and non-climatic processes can result in different types of floods: riverine floods, flash floods, urban floods, glacial lake outburst floods and coastal floods. Floods are the natural hazard with the highest frequency and the widest geographical distribution worldwide. Although most floods are small events, monster floods are not infrequent (UNISDR 2017).

A drought is generally defined as an extended period – a season, a year, or several years – of deficient precipitation compared to the statistical multi-year average for a region that results in water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Droughts can be defined according to meteorological, agricultural, hydrological, and socio-economic criteria: Meteorologically, a drought means that precipitation patterns depart from the long-term normal; agriculturally, there is a drought when insufficient soil moisture cannot meet the needs of a particular crop at a particular time. An agricultural drought is typically an evident after a meteorological drought but before a hydrological drought. The latter means that deficiencies occur in surface and subsurface water supplies. Finally, in socio-economic terms, a drought means that human activities are affected by reduced precipitation and related water availability (FAO 2013).