Photo: ©FAO/Soliman Ahmed

Workers in Yemen build a water storage unit in a FAO-supported project.

20 March 2018, Rome/Brasilia – Global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past century, twice the rate of population growth, and its scarcity is now a looming human challenge due to a host of factors ranging from climate change and pollution to lack of capacity and infrastructure.

In a video message for the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said that two-thirds of the global population lives under conditions of severe water scarcity for at least part of the year.

That has a particularly heavy impact on people who depend on agriculture and some, especially the poorest, may see no alternative to migrate and in search of better livelihoods. “But migration should be a choice, and not the only remaining option,” Graziano da Silva stressed.

FAO presented new research, done with Global Water Partnership and Oregon State University, USA, on the nexus between water and migration at a high-level panel at the forum on Monday. “Water stress and human migration” reviews more than 100 detailed studies, analyzing their results in terms of demographics, surface temperatures and rainfall histories. The agency also contributed to a chapter on “nature-based solutions for managing water availability” in the UN report launched at the Forum.

“Agricultural adaptation strategies affect many people’s need to migrate and should be explicitly factored into climate change and other policies. Analyzing water scarcity trends and engaging in preparedness are particularly valuable, allowing time to intervene to mitigate pressure for forced migration,” said Eduardo Mansur, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division. “Enabling proactive adaptation is a more effective and sustainable strategy than offering a reactive humanitarian response in the face of large-scale distress.”

A key finding of the report is that more information on the dynamics of the migration-water linkage is needed for India, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Central Sahel – all areas that are expected to be among the earliest to face above-average surface temperature increases and intensifying water scarcity in the next 30 years.

South and Southeast Asia are also relatively understudied given their long coastlines and low-lying river deltas, and while water scarcity in South America and North Asia is less intense, evidence about migration pressures there is scant.

The findings

Water stress typically refers to situations in which demand is not met due to a combination of access issues and decline in the availability and/or the quality of water.

It tends to increase as a result of higher temperatures, growing demand from the agricultural, energy and industrial sectors, and may reflect greater rainfall extremes or vulnerability to flooding as well as more frequent drought-like conditions. Inadequate infrastructure can exacerbate shortfalls in water quantity and quality.

While some studies demonstrate a correlation between water stress and higher outmigration, the causal interaction is still not clearly understood, according to the report.

“It is essential to make sure the interaction between water scarcity and migration does not become one of mutual aggravation,” said Olcay Unver, FAO’s Deputy Director of Land and Water. 

Migration is a universal and common process and linked to development in multiple ways, and FAO strongly backs policies that help make it a choice, not a necessity. Evidence suggests that public investments in agriculture adaptation can attenuate the adverse drivers of rural outmigration, the report notes.

While timely interventions may be able to mitigate involuntary migration, the impact of migrants on water stress in the places they go also warrants closer attention, especially as informal settlements often entails form of land use that make inefficient use of water, damage local hydrological cycles or disrupt traditional systems that incentivize water conservation.

At the same time, migrants can positively contribute to water management as well as development in both origin and host communities through good practices, skills and knowledge transfer, and the use of remittances

The concept of environmental migrants is increasingly drawing attention, and more data is required both to understand and pre-empt trends in a timely way. That is a message FAO and the International Organization of Migration are emphasizing as co-chairs of the Global Migration Group’s efforts in 2018 to help craft a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.


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