Why do people stay despite climate risks?
Post-harvest process underway in Almora district, Uttarakhand, India. Picture by the author.
The dominant narrative around climate change-related human mobility has been that of mass migration, where the focus has been on the numbers of climate migrants, as well as when and where they will migrate to. However, many people affected by climate change do not migrate, despite the risk. Yet this aspect has been neglected both in policy and research.
Immobility as a topic of study, in the context of climate change, gained prominence in 2011 when the UK government published the Foresight report. It identified four potential mobility outcomes: migration, displacement, immobility and trapped populations. The populations that stayed voluntarily were discussed as immobile while those who stayed involuntarily were characterised as trapped populations. People may stay because they have a choice, options and a preference – due to attachment to place, preference for community, livelihood resilience or to maintain cultural continuity. Others may want to migrate but might lack the capability to do so and thereby become trapped due to factors such as gender roles, poverty, political factors, low skills and landlessness.
Recently there have been efforts to theoretically advance the understanding of immobility in the face of climate change, but there are still only limited empirical studies on the topic. In order to better understand immobility, I studied the Himalayan communities in Uttarakhand, India who are facing the twin challenges of climate change and outmigration. Disasters, erratic precipitation, rising temperatures, heat, receding glaciers and snowlines, cloudbursts and other environmental factors are impacting crop yields, livelihoods and the wellbeing of agrarian communities in the region. Rainfall volatility directly affects 70% of the population, who depend on agriculture for subsistence. There are no alternative livelihoods in the region due to its remoteness. Outmigration has led to the depopulation of villages that are left with locked houses, fallow lands and a few inhabitants – popularly called ‘ghost villages’. Yet there are some who stay. They remain in place and want to continue living in the places that they call home. So the question here is, why do people stay despite facing increasing migration pressures from changing climatic conditions? I did field research in Uttarakhand to find the answer.
An 84-year-old woman, living alone in a Khola village, erupts in anger:
‘I am still here. This is where I came after I got married, I was only 15. I built a life, raised children, and made a house. This is where I have lived all my life. I have my home, fields, community and our temple here so why should I move anywhere. Yes, people have outmigrated, that’s their decision. Though I still don’t understand why. But what about us? We are still here. Who is thinking about us?’
This quote represents the plight of those who want to remain in place and who are often overlooked. In my research, I found that there are complex motivations for staying. First, there are those who have livelihoods in addition to agriculture, for example, running a tea stall, tailoring, working as a driver, etc. These occupations hold them in place and also help them cope with risks in climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture. Second, there are others who have a preference to remain – shaped by attachments to home, community and culture. However, this does not mean that those who choose to stay are somehow less vulnerable than those who have outmigrated. The majority of people who wanted to stay were also concerned about declining livelihood resources, reduced land productivity, decrease in crop yields, drying up of drinking water resources, increased outmigration and its impacts on agriculture labour and demographic structure, lack of any government support, and lack of insurance – indicating a low adaptive capacity.
Third, there are also those who want to migrate but do not have the capital, skills and social networks to do so. They are not able to move away from climate risk. These populations are often those who live in poverty, have limited social and financial resources, and are marginalised and underrepresented. In the absence of any supportive policies, these populations could become trapped as climate change continues to erode their livelihoods. Fourth are those who remain, and want to remain, but anticipate forced migration in the future due to deteriorating environmental conditions that put habitability in question, unless their needs for adaptation are met.
Community discussion underway in Nainital district, Uttarakhand, India. Picture by the author.
Policies need to both address the needs for adaptation in place and support those who want to migrate as a way to adapt. The ‘right to remain’ in place despite climate risks is a matter of climate justice. This is recognised by international policy agreements like the Global Compact on Migration which notes, ‘[e]fforts must be strengthened to address the implications of climate change for migration and to foster people’s resilience to remain in place with dignity’.
Similar to migration, there needs to be more discussion, recognition and visibility of immobility in international, national, and local policies and plans. Whether voluntary or involuntary, the voice of immobile populations affected by climate change needs to be heard and represented in relevant policy and political processes. If neglected, it can lead to a mobility bias in policy where the agency, needs and rights of people who want to stay are ignored.
Himani Upadhyay is a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany. Her main topics of research are climate change adaptation, climate change and human (im)mobility, stakeholder engagement and science-policy interphase. She is committed to generating scientific evidence for bringing visibility, recognition, and support to communities affected by the adverse effects of climate change. Her Twitter handle is @HimaniUp