As the ice melts, communities ask: Should I stay or should I go now?

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A local walks in one of the dozens of villages from Chavin to Chacas in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca region. (martynas/Flickr)

As the global temperature increases, vulnerable communities seem to be faced with a choice: adapt or collapse. Migration is frequently proposed as an adaptation strategy, or in some cases, as an unavoidable outcome for communities lacking the capacity to change. Some researchers, however, have criticized this perspective, saying that it reflects an environmental determinism that discounts the role of governments and other institutions in creating or exacerbating underlying vulnerabilities.

A new study from David J. Wrathall of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security investigates migration as an adaptation response not only to climatic stress, but to political structures as well.

Historically, smallholder farmers in the Cordillera Blanca in highland Peru largely relied on ad-hoc, informal access to water from springs and streams for agriculture and grazing. In the 1960s, a series of reforms promoted more formal management of water resources; along with an agrarian reform, it fostered the growth of smallholder agriculture. Peru’s transition in the 1990s to export-led growth increased urbanization along the country’s coastal region, drawing large-scale emigration from rural highlands.

Competing water needs of the newly urbanized coast, hydroelectric stations and coastal export-oriented agriculturalists, led Peru to introduce a new water management law in 2009. The law is “premised on the concept of integrated water management,” but the authors state that water laws are opportunities for powerful actors to increase the rigidity of water provisioning and control resources even further. Given several recent high-profile disputes, this increasing rigidity in water redistribution appears to be playing out. In the case of the Cordillera Blanca, towns, hydroelectric plants and coastal agriculture have captured water resources that used to be managed informally by smallholders, exacerbating the impacts of glacier retreat on water scarcity.

The study’s authors found that while the new wave of migration is driven by climate change-related stresses, “dominant institutional forces” shape and direct this form of climate change response. They conclude that migration is a strategy of last resort among a menu of limited alternatives, and acts as a necessary pressure valve to relieve the water stress that arises from competition to a limited (and dwindling) resource among powerful and less powerful actors. Migration in this institutional context is a conflict resolution mechanism as much as an adaptation to climate change, and is an adaptation alternative that is promoted by, and reinforces, existing power structures.

Expanding the discourse beyond ecological determinism to an ecological and social “possibilism” is the way forward, according to the paper’s authors. This, broadening, they hope, will allow for alternative adaptation responses and not force “the undesirable scenarios in which migration occurs.”

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