Article image

Short-distance migrations are a common part of life

When people undertake long-distance migrations, across borders, oceans or continents, this is usually worthy of mention. But most human migrations take place over shorter distances, within the territorial borders of countries, and are undertaken for the purpose of adapting to everyday stresses in life. In fact, for many people in the drylands of the world, short-distance migration has become part of everyday life. 

The drylands of the world are the largest global biome, covering between 41 and 45 percent of the Earth‛s surface. Around one-third of the global population lives in drylands, where uncertainty about the availability of water and resources, as well as ever rising temperatures, make short-distance migrations an everyday feature. People move away in order to survive the pressures they experience in life. 

These regions are already experiencing multiple pressures, including increasing rates of aridity and soil degradation, poorly planned and implemented development interventions, rapid population growth, historically high rates of poverty, poor communication infrastructure and isolation from national centers of power. Add to this the uncertainties introduced by climate change and it is clear that migration may become an adaptation strategy for survival in humans from many parts of the world.

A new study has now set out to investigate how people have used mobility in coping with changes during their lives. The study draws on a total of 14 cases generated through 21 long-form, semi-structured life history (LH) interviews with people who live in dryland regions of Ghana, Kenya, Namibia and India. The interviews were undertaken during 2016 and 2017.  LH methodology has rarely been applied to explore vulnerability and adaptation in relation to risks associated with climate change.

The research was led by Dr. Mark Tebboth, an associate professor in the Environment and International Development at the University of East Anglia. “Most attention is on international migration and how climate change will lead to huge numbers of people fleeing across borders, but actually the vast majority of people move short distances within their own country in order to take advantage of opportunities or in response to shocks and stresses in their lives,” said Dr. Tebboth. “Supporting and enabling this migration will help people to continue to adapt to the pressures in their lives.”

In India, the study sites were in North Karnataka’s Kolar district, where diversification to non-farm labour and daily commuting to Bangalore is common, and the Gulburga district, where agricultural livelihoods dominate and there has been historical outmigration to large cities. In Kenya, the study sites were in Isiolo, the ‘gateway to the north,’ where pastoralism, farming and tourism are common. Water is a scarce resource and this looks as though it will become more severe in the future.   

The findings of the study, published in Ecology and Society, showed that for most people living in drylands, mobility is an integral part of daily life and an important adaptation to coping with environmental change. People move with their herds to better locations, they move to work each day, they move away from stressful situations such as floods and fires, they move to escape social limitations such as caste systems, and they move to make use of new opportunities. Mobility does, however, have some downsides. It can expose people to new risks, such as increased living costs, the precarious nature of urban livelihoods, and higher exposure to hazards.

The researchers demonstrate that risks and responses change throughout a person’s life and that sometimes people negotiate these changes by moving to new locations and circumstances. In this sense, mobility, as an integral component in many people‛s lives and livelihood portfolios, constitutes a key risk management strategy that is worthy of further research. This is particularly relevant as the consequences of climate change take their toll. 

“Far from being exceptional, this everyday mobility is ubiquitous and much removed from alarmist discourses of ‘climate migration’ that views movement as solely climate-driven,” said Dr. Tebboth.

“In reality, it is normalized within lives and livelihoods and these movements are crucial in helping people to manage different shocks and stresses within their lives, including increasing climate variability. Most mobility, especially that in which environmental change is of some influence, is and will remain local.” 

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day