City Life and City Strife – Climate Change and Migration

The UN’s COP26 climate conference urgently has to address climate-induced migration, say Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown and Leadership Board Member of the Mayors Migration Council, and Ottilie Bälz, Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Ottilie Bälz and Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr | November 2021
African men sitting at the sea.
Stuart Price

85.7 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa could be affected by climate-induced migration by 2050.

World leaders gather in Glasgow to grapple with the rising sea levels, severe droughts and intense storms already attributed to climate change. Sadly, the UN Climate Change Conference could once again neglect the problem of climate-induced migration, even though in Sub-Saharan Africa alone up to 85.7 million people could be forced into this by 2050, according to World Bank’s Groundswell Report. As a result, COP26, as the meeting is dubbed, could marginalize the crucial role cities can play in dealing with this problem – the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees says seven in ten displaced people already live in urban areas. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s fastest urbanizing regions. In many African cities, climate change is not only accelerating population growth, it is adding to the problems encountered by city dwellers, especially the poorest. Informal settlements, often home to vast numbers people displaced by climate from rural areas, are disproportionally affected by climate change – be it by so-called slow-onset hazards like rising sea levels or sudden-onset disasters like heat waves, landslides and flooding. Local leaders are already mobilizing their often limited resources to serve the most marginalized – and the world now needs to help them.

Ottilie Bälz
Michael Fuchs

About the person

Ottilie Bälz is senior vice president in "Global Issues" at the Robert Bosch Stiftung. One of our topics in this support area is migration. Within this topic, we focus on future issues of migrant and refugee protection, human mobility in the context of climate change, the inclusion of cities in migration governance, and the role of technological change.

The African capitals Freetown in Sierra Leone and Dakar in Senegal are leading by example. They have developed community-based action plans to deal with the potentially self-reinforcing problem of rapid population growth, rising sea levels and increasing natural disasters. In Dakar, an estimated 40% of the population is highly exposed to flooding and tens of thousands of people have been migrating within the city for many years. To protect vulnerable communities and avert forced displacement, the city has redeveloped a huge storm water retention basin and boosted related urban planning initiatives, taking into account not only physical infrastructure, but also less tangible cultural and social networks.

In Freetown, the Waste Management Micro-Enterprise Program shows the effectiveness of innovative and inclusive solutions. Climate change and conflict have seen the city double in size in two decades, 35 percent of its 1.2 million inhabitants live in often unkempt informal settlements. The program created forty new enterprises that provide waste-collection services in these areas and to other Freetown residents. The program gives young people living in informal settlements, many rural migrants, the opportunity to improve their livelihoods and public health in their neighborhoods and others across the city. 

These cities – and many others – are effective frontline responders because climate-induced migration leaves them no choice. They are building essential knowledge about extremely tricky climate-adaptation measures that strive to include every member of the community. And they are willing to take collective action across regions and continents, knowing one city’s engagement is crucial, but not enough. Freetown received essential funding and Dakar support from the Global Cities Fund of the Mayors Migration Council, which has a strategic partnership with C40 Cities Leadership Group representing 700 million people in 96 of the world’s greatest cities. But the world community has to help these cities do more. 

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

About the person

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr became Mayor of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in May 2018 and is a member of the Mayors Migration Council, a global federation of mayors. She is also member of the C40- Global Mayors Task Force on Climate and Migration. After finishing her master's degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, she worked for 25 years as a consultant, including in the financial sector in Great Britain, before returning to Freetown in late 2014 amid the Ebola crisis. In January 2016 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen of England for her service in the fight against Ebola.

Support is needed on a much larger scale because the challenges of climate change are growing. A groundbreaking study published last year by the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that by 2070 Sahara-like climate zones that now make up 0.8 percent of all land on earth could grow to cover almost one fifth. Between one and three billion people (not to mention livestock and crops) would have to say goodbye to climactic conditions in which humankind thrived for six millennia. Millions would be forced to migrate to the remaining – and ever more crowded – temperate areas of the globe.    

Cities have already developed some good ways to meet the mounting challenges of climate change and migration. They are capable of developing the kind of creative, multi-pronged and people-centric approaches that are needed. The world community – COP26 participants, please note – needs to allocate more resources to climate-induced urban innovation and its transfer from one city to others – especially to those in Africa, where national support is limited, economies weakened by COVID-19, climate effects most severe. Sustainable policy-making at international and national level has to embrace inclusive solutions at the local level. Cities have plenty of ideas, they just need the means to implement them.