From Tides to Tides: Climate change and Migration in Coastal Communities in Liberia
Migration is proposed as a measure to adapt to climate change, however, implementing this measure comes with significant challenges, especially in coastal communities in countries like Liberia.
Photo credits:CDR International BV 2018
West Point is an informal coastal settlement in Montserrado, Liberia. It is highly sensitive to the climate change impacts of sea-level rise and the increased frequency of high-intensity storms that contribute to coastal erosion and shoreline retreat. The community hosts over 250,000 people living on four square kilometers of the sandy peninsula. Eighty thousand (80,000) of these people struggle daily to access safe drinking water, and many of them are considered ‘under-privileged (WASH Network 2021). Many areas in the community are less than one meter above the water table, leaving them susceptible to coastal erosion (CARD 2014). Coastal erosion has caused the shoreline to regress by 30m in the last three decades, resulting in the loss of 670 homes in the settlement. It is estimated that without interventions, the shoreline will regress by 190m by 2100 (Liberia 2021).
Regina Koffa is a fish processor and seller who lived in West Point. She was born in this community and learned the delicate but difficult act of processing fish from her mother. Regina traced gaining this knowledge to her childhood days. Growing up, she remembered running to welcome her father’s canoe in the evenings after his fishing expeditions and helping her mother process and sell fish in the market to provide for their family. This is the life Regina knows, and this is who she is. However, life drastically changed for Regina and her family on July 31, 2019, when 72 homes—including Regina’s home—were washed away in the West Point community by the Ocean (see Mbayo 2019). This disaster caused an upheaval in the lives of all the victims, and many of them had to migrate to other communities to resettle and hopefully resume what they knew as their ‘normal activities.’ Regina and her family moved to Robertsport, another fishing community, to resettle because, according to her, that was a huge criterion as processing and selling fish is the only livelihood activity she knows (Koffa pers comms.).
These kinds of migrations, termed climate-induced ones, are becoming frequent and popular because of how they are instigated.
Migration as Adaptation
It is undeniable that climate change has become an increasingly popular topic in the global world. It has been interwoven into every discipline and mainstreamed into the media, economy, and every aspect of the human world. Measures to mitigate climate change and its impacts and strategies to adapt to the changes that these phenomena cause are being employed by multiple stakeholders in every part of the world. High among these measures and strategies are the defend, retreat and adapt trio. These strategies have proven effective in dealing with climate change impacts considerably, but this does not negate the emergence of additional measures. One of those new measures quickly gaining recognition is migration as a form of climate change adaptation.
Migration is defined as the movement of a person’s principal location of residence either within countries or internationally (Adger et al. 2020). It is occurring worldwide, and climate change has become one of the paramount reasons for these migrations, in addition to economic factors, conflicts, etc. According to Adger et al. (2020), almost 24 million people have been directly displaced by principally weather-related disasters each year on average over the past decade, and current migration trends are likely to intensify as the effects of climate change become more apparent.
The concept of ‘migration as adaptation’ was introduced by the International Organization for Migration and was subsequently adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Global Compact for Migration (Vinke 2019). It stems from people living in communities that are not resilient to climate change, often migrating after being exposed to shocks that those communities cannot recover from. These shocks reveal the inadequacies and inefficiencies of these communities and social systems, leaving them vulnerable and teetering at the brink of destruction and crises. Such communities usually do not have a chance of recovering from these shocks, and people living in the communities tend to migrate as a form of adaptation.
Adapting to Change: Impact on Lives and Livelihoods
Although migration is being proposed to adapt to climate change, implementing this measure comes with significant challenges, especially in an under-developed country like Liberia.
People in tightly-woven communities with strong social connectedness and high dependency on the environment are adamant about staying in those communities despite the risks posed to them by making such a decision. Such instances are seen in coastal communities, like the West Point community, where the sources of livelihood are inextricably linked to the environment, and relocation entails changing the basic lifestyles they are accustomed to and disintegrating the social fabrics of their communities.
This point also feeds into the second point; when they migrate, the destinations are mostly coastal communities—like in Regina’s case. These communities are equally threatened, and the influx of migrants might stress their support systems and increase the threats. For fishing communities, the increase in fishers intensifies the pressure on the marine resources and leads to conflicts between the resource users—the indigenous community members and the migrants. For the migrants, integrating into the new environment and earning the trust and respect of people living in that environment takes time. The appalling financial conditions of most migrants often make it even longer and difficult for them to adapt to their new communities.
To address these challenges and facilitate local migration processes, the Government of Liberia and its partners need to build the resilience of coastal communities, like what is being done with the Monrovia Metropolitan Climate Resilience Project in the West Point Community (See Liberia 2021). Destination communities also need to be capacitated to host the migrants through social funds, housing projects, and jobs creation. It is important to prioritise these communities also in resilience-building projects to ensure they do not exceed their carrying capacity. Additionally, alternative livelihood opportunities should be introduced for migrants in new communities to fend for themselves and their families. It is highly recommended that these recommendations be followed to avoid people waking up to their homes being washed away by the tides, again.
This research article is part of the project, "Our Climate Stories". To learn more, visit: https://www.seekresearchnetwork.eu/ourclimatestories
About the Author
Olivia Precious Livingstone is a MSc. Environmental Science and Policy candidate at the Central European University (CEU) Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy. She is working as a climate researcher with SEEK Research Network under the collaboration of OSUN Science Shop at the CEU. Her work looks into the impact of climate change on coastal communities in Liberia.
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