Migrating from Droughts: A Pathway for Rural Community Response to Water Scarcity
This post was written by Charity Osei-Amponsah, senior regional researcher for the Governance Institution and Inclusion, International Water Management Institute (IWMI); and Andrew Okem, regional researcher for the Climate Adaptation and Governance, IWMI.
Water is scarce in most communities in the Upper West Region (UWR) of Ghana, and the scarcity is likely to persist until 2100. Smallholder farming, the main livelihood in the region, is largely rain-fed. In addition, some youth and women rely on boreholes, dug-out wells and streams for vegetable farming, but these water sources easily dry up during the dry season. The region’s high dependence on rainfall for its agriculture livelihoods, coupled with high poverty rates, makes it very vulnerable to climate change impacts and weather variability. Migrating in search of alternative livelihoods is a common response to the water scarcity challenge in the region.
The migration pattern involves mostly young men, who seasonally migrate to the forest zones in Ghana (e.g., Tiabante, Juaboso in Western North Region) during the seven months (October to April) of long, dry periods in search of farm labor in cocoa and oil palm plantations. In the Loggu community in UWR, for instance, Fuseini* and his friends migrate to urban Kumasi to work as farm laborers and/or building construction workers when their dug-out well for tomato irrigation dries up. Unlike Fuseini and his friends who migrate temporarily in the dry season, others migrate permanently. A study of 2,190 households in seven districts of the region had 34.4% of households reporting joint (men and women) permanent migration. However, permanent migration was indicated by 55.6% of respondents to be prevalent among men, compared to 10% for women. Most women migrate to urban areas for jobs in the informal sector, while men take up jobs in the agricultural and construction sectors.
In one case of permanent migration, Peter* an indigene of Berinyasi in the Wa West District of UWR, is now a migrant farmer at Camp 15 Junction in the Western North Region in southern Ghana. This community is more water secure and less vulnerable to water-related impacts of climate change.
Now 34 years old, Peter first migrated from his home at age 18 years, traveling approximately 500 kilometers to the host community, to engage in the same farming work he had been doing at Berinyasi. The host community offers him and other youth migrants access to fertile farmlands, favorable rainfall patterns, more reliable water resources, new agricultural practices and innovations, new crop varieties, well-resourced input and output markets, a variety of foods for consumption and new social networks.
Farming is less labor intensive due to better soil quality and easy access to agricultural tools and machinery, which minimizes the workload on the farms. Thus, Peter likes farming in his host community better than going through the manual work and drudgery of farming in the dry and unfertile soils in his hometown.
Back home for a visit in Berinyasi, Peter says, “I have been able to acquire a decent house for myself here, and currently building a three-bedroom house for my father.” According to him, such properties would have been impossible to afford if he had continued living in his hometown.
In many water-scarce communities in UWR, like Berinyasi, the desire for a better quality of life is a significant push factor for the youth to migrate. Indeed, Peter believes migration is a more viable long-term approach for the youth in climate-vulnerable hotspots, because the host communities offer better economic opportunities, higher quality of life and better access to potable water.
Although migration is one possible response to water scarcity risks, not every household member affected will respond with a migration strategy. Others may be unable to or may choose not to migrate due to poverty, gender, remoteness, ill health and age. The decision to migrate, therefore, depends on who is involved, what drives them and how the sending and host communities are transforming. In the sending communities, women, the aged and children will be left behind to manage farms and make household livelihood decisions. For the host communities, there will be increased pressure on water resources, an increase in farm and nonfarm workforce, and new settlements, including slums that spring up to accommodate migrants.
Water scarcity is likely to continue pushing smallholder farmers to decide on best-fit adaptation pathways. While migration can be an effective option in some circumstances, as in the case of Peter, it might not always be a good alternative. It is essential to carefully understand and consider the potential impacts of migration decisions on those leaving, the ones being left behind and the transformation (both positive and negative) mediated by migration in host and sending communities.
Therefore, it is important for stakeholders of the water sector to investigate not only the biophysical issues of water scarcity, but also the intersecting dynamic vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities that inform people’s migration decisions. This will generate better pathways for managing and governing water resources to effectively minimize the negative impacts, while strengthening positive transformation in sending and host communities.
* Not their real name.