Woman and her donkey walk to collect water in rural Somaliland

Bridging the gap: environmental change, mobility and policy in Ethiopia’s Somali Region and Somaliland

Abdirahman Ahmed, Mohamed Fadal, Maissoun Hussein, Padmini Iyer, Louisa Brain

Environment and mobility are closely linked in a myriad of complex and contextualised ways. Environmental change, in conjunction with a range of overlapping economic, political, social and demographic factors, influences migration patterns and preferences in the Horn of Africa (HoA). These phenomena – and the associated pressures on livelihoods, such as decreased availability of water and pasture for animals, deteriorating soil quality and delayed or failed harvests – are pushing some people to undertake extraordinary movements. As well as encouraging new movements, environmental changes also cause shifts in existing migration patterns. For example, they may push pastoralists to move further in search of resources, to adopt alternative livelihoods to meet household needs, or even to drop out of pastoralism altogether.

When environmental factors overlap with socioeconomic realities, they may lead to some people moving in new ways, while others may be unable to move. Some may be so destitute that they are unable to leave. The relationship can also be seen in reverse – with migration impacting on the environment, something that is visible in the rapid urbanisation in the HoA, and in the establishment of camps and settlements associated with the large-scale movement of people (in instances of internal displacement, rural-to-urban migration and forced displacement). These movements, in turn, put pressure on available resources in hosting areas.

The HoA is experiencing extreme climate variability and uncertainty, typically manifested in erratic rainfall, high temperatures, prolonged droughts, increasing flood events and intensifying land degradation (IGAD, 2018). Political conflict, economic insecurity and weak governance have further compounded the negative impacts of environmental change (IOM, 2020). In the dryland areas of the HoA, home to pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities, mobility has always been a key strategy for innovatively exploiting the disequilibrium of the environment, and accessing the pasture and water critical for animals. Over time, however, the ‘voluntariness’ of mobility is changing and many pastoralists are being pushed to move longer distances and in contexts of insecurity in order to sustain their livelihoods. As a result, there has been a marked increase in the number of cross-border migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs) (Nelson & Khan, 2021). In Ethiopia, for instance, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reports that 2.8 million people were internally displaced from ‘disasters’, particularly drought and flood, in the period between 2008 and 2021. Displacement in the context of drought has also noticeably increased in Somaliland, with many households moving closer to urban areas of the country.

Despite the multiple threads connecting migration and the environment, major climate policy and programmes tend to overlook migration’s connections to ecological and environmental phenomena. Within climate studies, the role of migration has been relatively neglected or even ignored altogether. When mobility is considered, it is usually framed in negative terms as a problem to be solved. For example, the focus of climate modelling tends to centre on predicting numbers of ‘climate change refugees’ based on future climate scenarios.

This study critically considers the extent to which – and ways that – migration represents a strategy for adapting to environmental change among communities in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State and Somaliland’s Togdheer and Maroodijex administrative regions (gobol). It investigates how people use migration as a strategy for adapting to environmental change and the factors that influence migration decisions – whether as positive adaptation or distress- related mobility. Concurrently, the study examines select climate and environmental change- related policies and plans in each country to understand how mobility is framed therein. On the basis of the findings, the study provides recommendations on how the environment– migration relationship can be integrated into climate policy and programming.

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Image source: UNDP Somalia

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