Climate migration no stranger to Malawi

Many who step foot in Malawi, or as it’s often regarded—the Warm Heart of Africa—quickly learn the importance of Malawi’s three c’s: chombe (tea), chamba (marijuana) and chambo (fish). The three c’s represent key sources of national wealth, pride, and sustainance. But all are under threat due to Earth’s changing climate—from Malawi’s rolling mountains and vast plateaus to its treasured Lake Malawi.

Over the past year, millions of protesters around the globe took to the streets to demand greater efforts to address climate change. The once seemingly distant and inconceivable consequences of climate change are now causing real harm.

Amongst the growing repercussions of climate change is climate migration—populations leaving their homes temporarily or permanently because their well-beings and livelihoods have been compromised by sudden or long-term changes to their environments. Some flee because their homes were destroyed in natural disasters, like cyclones and floods, or because changes in climate or environmental degradation altered agricultural norms, or because cities are literally sinking.

Climate migration is no stranger to Malawi. In the devasting floods accompanying Cyclone Idai in March, for example, Unicef estimates that roughly 224 000 homes were destroyed and more than 160 000 people were displaced across Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Such projected high levels of forced migration will have profound impact in Malawi, Africa, and the world at large. As outlined by the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the surge in climate migration will significantly affect global development by putting pressure on urban infrastructure and services, hindering economic growth, elevating risk of conflict, and ultimately decreasing migrants’ health, educational and social outcomes. Even in the best case (and most unlikely) scenario where we maintain current warming temperatures, we still have to face the huge inevitable shifts in human mobility that are already beginning. The IOM offers three high-level policy recommendations for managing such changes.

The recommendations illustrate the complex nexus of environment, climate change, and migration. Comprehensively addressing climate change and its flight of repercussions, including climate migration, requires more than just environmentalists. It will take cross-sectoral collaboration and multi-stakeholder involvement–involving industry, environment, security, disaster relief, urban development, tourism, immigration, food security, ethics, ecology, infrastructure, health, and housing–to name a few. Furthermore, such efforts are needed at local, national, and international levels alike to be practically useful.

The recent waves of protests demonstrate that the fight against climate change is unequivocally global–something clearly exemplified by climate migration. Although global agreements to fight climate change exist, like the 2015 Paris Accord, they are barely honoured. Out of the 196 countries which signed the Paris Accord, the only two which are meeting the set goals are in Africa: the Gambia and Morocco.

The story is the same at national level. Indeed, Malawi recognises the importance of agriculture, water development, and climate change management as the first priority of Malawi’s Growth and Development Strategy III (2017-2022). But what is happening on the ground? Rates of deforestation in the country are the highest in Southern Africa—a major driver of floods and droughts which lead to displacement and migration. Additionally, Malawi’s energy supply is fuelled almost entirely (89%) by biomass, a huge contributor of carbon dioxide gas and the cause of Earth’s warming. More specifically, Malawi does not have a policy in place to address the linkages between environment, climate change, and migration. Ultimately, actions taken today will determine outcomes in 30 years and beyond, including whether there are 25 million climate migrants or 1 billion, whether the said migrants promote or cripple global development, and whether the Warm Heart of Africa will still be celebrating its three c’s.

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