State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Anticipating and Tracking Climate Refugees in a Warming Africa

Managed retreat—the purposeful, coordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way—will be an increasingly necessary strategy around the world as rising global temperatures, erratic precipitation and increasing natural disasters place millions in need of safer ground.

The Columbia Climate School just convened the third Managed Retreat Conference, exploring this complex topic. Among the panels were presentations featuring projects focused on current and future climate-driven resettlement strategies in Africa, where researchers estimate by 2050 as many as 113 million people will be driven to relocate just within the borders of their own countries.

Postdoctoral research scientist Fabien Cotter of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network is primary author of two papers on climate migration in Africa.

Rweru Model Green Village in Rwanda, a subject of research into mandatory resettlement. (Courtesy Lisa Dale)

“African countries are much more rural than their northern counterparts, and have a limited ability to invest in adaptation measures,” said Cottier. “It is thus critical that we shed light on the impact of climate change in these countries, in order to raise public awareness [and] identify possible policy pathways to limit the damage and address migration.”

One paper Cottier presented at the conference explored both internal and across-border migration in West Africa, and traced the effects of weather shocks on permanent international migration along with seasonal and internal migration.

“We show that migration in the region is indeed influenced by weather shocks, with seasonal and short-distance migration more so than permanent long-distance migration,” said Cottier.

Global research about international migration patterns tends to reach several decades into the future. To better predict and prepare for shorter-term flows of migrants, Columbia is also leading a study that seeks to develop shorter term models.

“The model, which projects migration for multiple timescales into the future, is built upon and verified against the history of migration over the past few decades using observed histories of potential drivers, both social and environmental,” said Cottier.

Cottier and the team, including Michael Puma, Jennifer A. Nakamura, Richard Seager, and Alex de Sherbinin, continue this work as these regions adapt to the effects of sudden or slow-onset climate impacts.

Another study presented at the conference looked at what happened in 2016, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame imposed mandatory resettlement on some 2,000 people who had lived for generations on Mazane and Sharita islands in Lake Rweru on the Burundi border. This internal migration was driven in part by heightened climate risk. The resettlement offered Climate School researcher Lisa Dale and her team an opportunity to take a closer look at possible lessons to be learned.

“I was trying to understand this policy, the mandatory model as a form of resettlement,” said Dale. “We wanted to understand whether this reflects good climate adaptation. Is this [a way for] the country to adapt to having portions of its landscape now at high risk? And does it work? What are the barriers to having it succeed?” said Dale.

She conducted the research in partnership with the University of Rwanda, where she is also affiliated.

Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest nations, is home to a large population of subsistence farmers who are directly threatened by climate-induced hazards. And while these were among the reasons for the resettlement, the action was also part of a larger government strategy enacted in 1996, after Rwandans who had fled the genocide of 1994 had begun to return to their home country.  In the aftermath, officials established a policy to “villagize” scattered rural residents through grouped settlement. As part of the policy, Rwanda also adopted the Rural Settlement Program in 2008 to reach poor rural residents, encouraging them to move to planned settlements. These early planned villages were showcased as model villages.

For the most part, the people of Mazane and Sharita, recognizing the risk of drought, flooding and landslides, welcomed their move to the Rweru Model Green Village. It provided relative safety, health care, schools and other government services. Many who spoke to the research team said they were delighted with the houses provided as part of the move. Some reported sleeping on mattresses for the first time. However, there were challenges. The people of Mazane and Sharita had been farmers for generations, but the land they now had to cultivate wasn’t appropriate for growing the crops they were used to. This led to devastating poverty.

The study found that more than 20 percent of the children were not attending school. “Sometimes I cannot put food on the table, and he sleeps with an empty stomach, and he cannot manage to go to school the next day,” one of the villagers told the researchers.

“We conclude from this case that resettlement can be transformative, but it has both positive and negative elements,” said Dale. The program “successfully integrated climate change adaptation, [and] it was part of its national economic development strategy,” she said. Dale recommends more research into how resettlement can be tied to poverty reduction and economic growth.

“I’m keenly interested in the way Rwanda has woven climate-driven resettlement into its already robust rural development strategies,” said Dale. “We are on the front end of a long-term societal and civilizational shift, and are just starting to see how some of this might play out.”


Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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