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Climate Change, Environmental Degradation Precipitate Migration

By Dr. Le Anh Tuan (*)
Tuesday,  May 3,2011,16:04 (GMT+7)
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Climate Change, Environmental Degradation Precipitate Migration

By Dr. Le Anh Tuan (*)

On March 29-30, the International Organization for Migration held a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on “Climate change, environmental degradation and migration.” The event attracted 187 participants from governments, non-government organizations and institutes. In the article below, the author, Vietnam’s only representative at the conference, encapsulates the issues brought up at this conference.

Human history shows a link between migration and the environment, which has been further complicated by the recent emergence of climate change. This new phenomenon has heightened the extent of environmental degradation worldwide and accelerated natural disasters, in both magnitude and frequency. The dismal state of the global environment is linked to both gradual processes (such as desertification, drought and coastline erosion) and unexpected calamities (including storms and flash floods).

Natural disasters can trigger temporary migration while climate change and environmental degration will fuel frequent population movements. Migration ignited by catastrophes takes place mainly within a country; only some migrants moved to neighboring countries and even fewer go beyond these places.

Vietnam will witness three main trends of migration, self-initiated or otherwise: from higher to lower altitudes (for example, from the northwestern mountainous regions to the Red River Delta and from the Central Highlands to southeastern Vietnam), from north to south and from rural to urban areas (such as Hanoi, Danang and HCM City). Other forms of migration include that to other countries under labor export agreements or mixed-nationality marriage).

Self-initiated migration accounts for about one tenth of Vietnam’s population and is ascribable to complex causes. Apart from policies and socio-economic factors, natural disasters, famines, epidemics, poor harvests and so on play an important part. To aggravate matters, such resources as land, forests and water are increasingly depleted. Consequently, those confronted with poverty, residing in remote areas or lacking access to information, health care and education are vulnerable to the deleterious impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. These groups must shift to other regions, mainly industrial zones and urban areas, in search of a better life.

Their migration is seasonal and lasts for three to six months per year or even several years on end. Migrants are often aged 16-45 and plagued by limited qualifications. Some of them sell their farm land and leave for the cities instead. Massive rural-urban migration has bred severe labor shortages in agriculture.

The upside to this population flow is that such sectors as processing, construction, domestic services and so on benefit from abundant labor supplies. However, rural-urban migration also worsens environmental degradation, sparks off excessive population growth, spells trouble for infrastructure zoning plans and exerts pressure on housing, health care, education and waste treatment facilities.

Some migrants are unable to adapt to city life, tap into capital for small businesses, acquire skills deemed as vital for job stability, embrace professional discipline, avoid fraud or endure the appalling living standards in shanty towns. These people have had no choice but to move back to the countryside, engendering a reverse population flow.

Such migrants may continue to destroy the remaining resources in areas once blessed with natural endowments. As a result, rural areas may suffer from irreparable damage and keep plunging into trouble. Worse still, this phenomenon will make climate change, rising seawater levels and other disasters more frequent and severe. This vicious circle poses an increasingly thorny national problem.

(*) Climate Change Research Institute,Can Tho University

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