Climate Change and Rural-Urban Migration: the Case of Ethiopia

  • 25 September 2013, by Debay Tadesse (ISS)
Photo by sfmthd/iStock Photo by sfmthd/iStock

Because of significant dependence on the agricultural sector for production, employment, export earnings and markets among others, Ethiopia is particularly threatened by climate change. In this country, climate change manifests itself in terms of frequent droughts, flooding and warming. Environmental changes have deleterious effects on the lives and livelihoods of poor rural farmers in Ethiopia whose income, health, nutritional status and subsistence depend on rain-fed agriculture. Given these constraints, migration, specifically rural-to-urban migration is increasingly used as a last-resort coping strategy for the poorest of these subsistence-farming families.

Climate change and rural-urban migration in Africa often go hand in hand and both are able to exacerbate the other. The role these two factors play is starting to gain increasing prominence in research circles. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines environmental migrants as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reason of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”.
The high degree of vulnerability of rural households to climate change in Ethiopia is exacerbating a rural-urban migration in the country and this is resulting in many negative consequences including security threats. For example, a large proportion of the rural-urban migrants may fail to realise their expectations and may end up having to face life in urban slums, where they often find conditions much more difficult than they used to be in their villages. The consequences will not only reflect in increasing homelessness, crime and violence in cities but will also put a lot of strain on urban administration to provide services and infrastructure for the ever-growing influx of rural-urban migration.

Ethiopia’s largest city, the capitol Addis Ababa, is over-populated, in part due to rural-to-urban migration. Urban sprawl facilitates the deterioration of an already weak infrastructure and increases health and sanitation problems. However, migrants still come to the cities with the belief they will earn a labour wage, one they can remit back to the families and social supports they left behind.

It has been established that climate change poses a threat to the Ethiopian rain-fed agriculture. Approximately 84 per cent of the Ethiopian population is located in rural areas totally dependent on rain-fed agriculture on plots of land ranging from 0.25 hectare to 2.0 hectare on average for both employment and income. Agricultural failure can primarily harm the rural poor through food insecurity and low income. Broadly speaking, it can also have a significant impact on the national economy and thus on the urban poor in terms of high food prices, limited job opportunities in the agro-processing industries, and expensive imported food items due to foreign exchange shortage. For example, climate change is predicted to affect world cereal production. This is expected to harm poverty alleviation efforts in the country through increased import prices. Therefore, agricultural growth offers a potentially enormous opportunity to adapt to climate change.

Environmental extremes such as drought are decreasing the land’s productive capacity leading to a decrease in subsistence agriculture, income, and assets. Climate change can also affect the life of rural community through limiting access to traditional power sources due to depletion of the forest cover. Moreover, climate change can bring with it health threats putting pressure on the quality of life of the society and health expenditures. During periods of extreme conditions such as serious drought and flooding, people tend to migrate leaving their original location in search of better condition.

While Ethiopia has implemented adaptation strategies through small-scale irrigation, farm mechanisation, and the use of more water-efficient crops, more efforts at the national level are needed, including measures for infrastructure development, risk reduction and other coping strategies. These policies would be important steps to reduce rural-urban migration pressures and the human security challenges they bring about.

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