Ethiopia, Climate Change and Migration: A little more knowledge and a more nuanced perspective could greatly benefit thinking on policy

Neil Anthony Webster, Senior Researcher

The majority of Ethiopia’s nearly 110.000 million inhabitants are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Accounts of Ethiopian migrants travelling to the Gulf, South Africa and towards Europe are already in circulation and many observers see the growing impact of climate change as having the potential to send many thousands more on similar journeys. Given these fears and their impact on global policies and politics, perhaps we need a better understanding as to what is really going on.

Mobility by individuals and households is common practice and has been throughout history. Today, few remain stationary throughout their lives, whether in Denmark, Ethiopia or anywhere else. Mobility can be temporary or permanent, long-term or short-term, seasonal or in other ways periodic. Some might decide to move despite a wish to stay; while others might wish to move but are for various reasons held back.

In the histories of European countries, great periods of mobility were often linked to industrialization and the growth of commercial agriculture; many fewer in rural areas, many millions more in major urban centres. The economic growth occurring drew in labour from further afield, not least from countries linked through historical relations rooted in trade and colonialism, as domestic labour supplies proved insufficient.

The situation in developing countries is little different. Economic development needs a workforce, a workforce needs cheap food supplies, agriculture needs to provide this food and an economic surplus that can feed into the new economic activities, whether through state tax-based investments or private capital flows.

Adapting to climate change has many dimensions

In Ethiopia, climate change has been experienced for a long time; there have been fifteen serious famines in the past 50 years alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, famine became militarized as first the government of Haile Selassie and later that of the Derg sought to defeat armed movements seeking their downfall in areas affected by famine. Populations were forcibly resettled, aid systematically denied, and aid organisations punished for providing support.

Today, many farmers and their families speak of having to travel further for water, of crop yields being reduced due to changes in temperature and precipitation, and food insecurity growing. Adapting to climate change requires far more than improved agricultural extension services, better water management, and social protection payments designed to offset some of the financial losses increasingly incurred. In such scenarios, mobility that accesses other sources of finance is a key instrument of adaptation.

The government in Ethiopia is not standing still in addressing this growing challenge of slow-onset climate change. For example, the federal government has created a Commission for Environment, Forestry and Climate Change and has launched major policy initiatives in the field. The reform- minded Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, recognizes the scale and degree of the climate challenges facing the country. However, from national policy to local implementation is a considerable long distance with many significant changes required along the way. A more coherent approach requires that a government system organised in administrative ‘silos’ in areas such as agriculture, forestry, education and infrastructure, begins to think and work in a fundamentally different way.

Industrial parks – a part of the solution?

Close to the town of Hawassa, some 200 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, with Chinese support, the government has built and now runs a new industrial park for foreign companies to set up factories for their textile and apparel (ready-made garments) production. Already after two years it employs 32,000 Ethiopian workers and plans are to increase the number to 60,000. Wages are very low, labour unions are not present, accommodation conditions are less than adequate, and the recruitment of workers is undertaken solely by the government based on criteria agreed with the companies. From a Danish perspective the terms and conditions of employment might appear unacceptable; from an Ethiopian government perspective the park offers employment, generates foreign earnings, and has an economic and technological multiplier effect in Hawassa and beyond.

For the young female employees and their families, can the income from the park’s factories provide a small but important means for adapting to the climate change problems they experience with cultivation? Perhaps enabling a small investment in soil improvement, better seed, and possibly irrigation? Or does it further deepen the poverty traps they face and in fact reduce the adaptive capacity of the employees and the households they come from? As yet we do not know, and it is too early to judge who gains most from the Hawassa Industrial Park and similar major economic investments.

Local farmers and their families need ways to reduce the considerable vulnerability they face in farming, but is there an alternative to be found that can both reduce their vulnerability and delay the need for a major movement of the population away from farming? Adaptation of their current farm-based livelihood strategies appears to be critical for the farmers’ economic survival and potential improvement in both the short and the longer term. Clearly the role of government and thereby the nature of governance is critical to this task.

It is therefore a little strange that the importance governance in shaping climate-related mobility is overlooked in the design of interventions as well as in the research literature. The Climate Mobility Programme (GCM) seeks to address this gap by exploring how governance contexts and interventions shape people’s mobility options and capacity to adapt to climate change.

Understanding the impact of slow-onset climate change

One of the areas being studied by the GCM programme is a farming community located within the catchment area of the Hawassa Industrial Park. In order to inform policy and practice on climate change and mobility, we need to ask the people here what are the challenges facing their livelihoods? How do they navigate changing terms for resource access and use? How dependent are they on service provision from the state? And, at what point, and for whom, is mobility considered as a coping option?

In this way we can shed light on the nexus between governance, mobility practices and climate change adaptation. Improved knowledge in the processes and decisions taken here can help greatly in understanding and addressing effects from slow-onset climate change, not least when considering the many stories about Ethiopian migrants travelling to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and towards Europe.