The term “environmental migration” is used in different contexts, with different intentions and to refer to different phenomena. It is often associated with the massive displacement of people fleeing their homes after sudden natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, tsunamis, or earthquakes. Yet, environmental migration can also take place when slow changes in the climate and the environment impact people’s lives, ultimately leading to human mobility.
Both types of environmental migration are on the rise in Central Asia. Climate change is increasing extreme weather risks across the region. While most of Central Asia is characterized by a semi-arid to the arid climate, growing aridity and risk of droughts are expected as a result of temperature rise. During the last few decades, on average, the temperature in Central Asia has risen by an average of 5 degrees Celsius. In the coming decades, temperatures are predicted to further rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius. Higher temperatures will likely provoke the disappearance of the glaciers of Central Asia. In the short term, the melting of glaciers may increase the risk of fluvial floods, glacial lake outbursts, landslides, mudflows, and avalanches. In the long term, it may lead to a significant decrease in water supply and quality. Both aridity and glacial melting could intensify soil degradation and salinization, which can be devastating for a region in which agriculture is one of the major sources of wealth and employment. Furthermore, poor water quality, water scarcity, floods, droughts, and rising temperatures are well-known factors of disease spreading.
Within the region, the negative effects of climate change on populations’ well-being, food security, and poverty are most tangible in the Aral Sea Basin. Once the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has lost 90 percent of its surface area. The Aral Sea used to be a source of jobs and well-being for thousands of people living in the nearby villages. The shrinking has brought desertification, soil salinization, a decline in vegetation, and fish stocks. There is a lack of safe drinking water and health problems are rampant: cancer and tuberculosis rates among the local population are 50 percent higher than in other areas.
In this context, in both the Aral Sea region and Central Asia as a whole, the increase in extreme weather events and disasters is increasing short-term displacements. Besides, the degradation of the ecosystems, the decrease in livelihoods, and the lack of economic opportunities due to climate change are accelerating seasonal and long term-migration. While migration in the region is still largely considered as labour migration, the relevance of climate change as a driver of migration in the region should not be overlooked. In 2012, a research project conducted by the International Organization for Migration found out that for 40 percent of the respondents, environmental conditions in their place of residence had deteriorated in recent years. The study also concluded that sudden-onset disasters (mostly landslides and floods) and progressive changes in climate (particularly droughts) were affecting migration decisions and that international labour migration was widely used as an adaptation strategy to cope with the negative impacts of these phenomena on income-generating activities.
The disappearance of the Aral Sea was recognized by the United Nations as one of the worst ecological disasters of all times and Central Asia is considered one of the biggest hotspots of climate change. Yet, the rising concerns on the wellbeing of the population of this area of the world are still not being well-explored in academia nor broadcasted in mainstream media. This is why it is so important to use platforms for knowledge and experience sharing such as this blog to give forgotten cases the visibility they deserve.