Climate Mobility up to 2050

“We need to harness the mobility on the African continent!”

Right before COP27, the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative (ACMI) presented a groundbreaking report projecting migration movements caused by climate stressors. Kamal Amakrane, the ACMI Director and a former UN peacekeeper, explains where the majority of people will go and what a hotspot-centric approach in climate change adaptation could look like. 

Tobias Moorstedt
AdobeStock/Temporys, UNHCR, Nichole Sobecki
November 07, 2022

The ACMI report entitled “African Shifts” will deliver new data about migration caused by droughts, floods, and other consequences of climate change. What data points were most surprising or enlightening to you?

Kamal Amakrane: Many things we knew or suspected, but seeing them through a scientific exercise was very revealing and powerful. For instance, 99 percent of the mobility resulting directly from climate impact on the African continent in the next decades will be internal. And the remaining 1 percent will move primarily to neighboring countries because of long-established ethnic, economic, religious, or family ties. 

You’re talking about cross-border connections that were mostly only established after the Second World War.

Yes. It shows us that the narrative pressed forward by certain politicians and populists in the Global North is not only misleading but just factually wrong. 
When we talk about refugees or asylum, the first thing that comes to mind is the “right to protection”. When we spoke in our field research with people who had to move within Africa because of climate stressors, they were talking about “the right to stay”. They don’t want to leave their lands, their traditions, their heritage, they don’t want to leave their life, they want to progress in it. For most of them, success means coping and adapting where they are. 

In 2021, the Groundswell Report projected more than “200 million climate refugees by 2050”. Many fear-spreading politicians and media in Europe focus on the border crisis. What do you make of that?

Climate Refugees. Climate Migration. Displacement. Relocation. These are old words that don’t give people the agency they deserve. Our scientific report is an opportunity to reshape the narrative and trajectory of the discourse. It’s not about Europe and how one can manage or contain climate migration. It’s about how we harness the mobility on the African continent and build agency by supporting choices to move, receive or stay. Here’s my perspective: Every glass that is half-empty is also half-full. So, let’s focus on what we have and how we can build on it. This is especially important because our research shows that Africa will be a very mobile continent. In 2050, 13-15 percent of the entire population of Africa will be on the move due to climate stressors and other factors like economic mobility or conflicts. 

Luggage is loaded onto a bus heading to Nairobi from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

More than 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of them from Somalia, live in the Dadaab complex in Kenya. Here a bus heading to Nairobi is being readied. 

In 2050, one in four people on our planet will be African. So we’re talking about 300 to 400 million people.

I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the European Union. People are capital. Mobility is an important economic factor. What we want to show is that climate mobility is something you can invest in, as opposed to something you neglect or push back against. The question is not only how we adapt to the most extreme consequences of climate change, but also what the future of cooperation for a continent on the move is.

Who will have to answer this question?

Well, the wider multilateral system, all the partners, and all who have a stake in a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy Africa. And for that we need a new approach when it comes to development, humanitarian aid, and governance. For the last 77 years, it’s been all about nation states. But this nation-centric blueprint of the international system needs to be replaced by a hotspot-centric approach. 


Kamal Amakrane

Kamal Amakrane is Managing Director of the Global Centre for Climate Mobility and Director of the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative (ACMI). He previously occupied senior positions in various UN Peacekeeping Missions in the Ivory Coast and Darfur, and from 2015 to 2017 was Political Director to the Chairperson of the UN General Assembly, where he was mainly working on human rights, migration and human trafficking issues. He also lectures at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

How do you define that?

It’s a scientific breakthrough like personalized medicine. Not everybody gets the same medicine but a drug that is tailored to specific needs and ailments. For this to work you need a lot of data. We were able to map out down to within 5 km2 the climate hotspots on the continent in intervals of five years up to 2050. The result is a map where you can see where people will have to leave due to specific climate stressors – and where they would go. When I showed our data to the Mayor of Dakar, he said: “Oh no, I have an infrastructure project in an area that will be severely affected.” But this is the approach we want to implement: If you are building schools for the next 50 years, you should build them where they are needed.

What would be an example for a climate hotspot?

Climate mobility will affect all countries, but some regions will see more movement than others – also due to projected population and economic growth.  A fishing community on the Atlantic coast of Senegal impacted by rising sea levels needs different things than a Senegalese pastoral community stressed by limited water availability near the border to Mali. You can’t help both communities with the same silver bullet or a national grand strategy. With our initiative we want to foster solutions that are informed by local realities and co-developed by local communities. Thus, you get more return on investment and sustainable development because you are also building agency and knowledge in the communities. We call these ecosystems “communities of practice”. 

A Malian refugee fisherman prepares his nets with his wife and children.

This Malian fisherman had to move several times in his homeland because of drying lakes – eventually crossed the border into Mauritania and settled near Lake Mahmouda. 

How would that approach help the fishing community in Senegal you mentioned before?

There are several steps: First, there is climate literacy for the population. The small town near Dakar is impacted by rising sea levels and warming oceans. The fishermen might be aware that there are less fish today than before, probably blaming it on European or Chinese boats on the high seas. When you give them the knowledge that warmer and less saline water changes the ecosystem and that not all of them can be fishermen forever, it opens up space for reimagining the future, hopefully before their livelihood has dried up. With actionable knowledge of climate risk to their livelihood they can decide how to change or adapt. The next steps are to work with the community, with government, private sector and development partners to develop alternative livelihood options, ideally give them green skills for a nature-positive transformation. Because society around them is changing as well, since former pastoralists are relocating from the dry inlands to the coast. We give local actors this information, what neighborhoods are impacted, what pilot projects are possible, and help them to evolve. And then we want to take these learnings and transfer them to similar hotspots around Africa – and scale them. 

Workshops, prototypes, scalability – where does this approach come from?

What I learned from the tech world is the ambition and strategic flexibility. I want to focus on the possible and inject new momentum at the same time. Personally, I have two major influences in my professional life. I’m a trained architect, so listening to clients and the community is second nature to me. And when I was a peacekeeper, I learned that it is all about the compromise, people finding peace with what they can agree on. 

“ACMI is not an implementing entity, we don’t want to reinvent the system but to inject a new and empirically informed, bottom-up trajectory.”

Quote fromKamal Amakrane, Director African Climate Mobility Initiative
Quote fromKamal Amakrane, Director African Climate Mobility Initiative

How can you ensure that the findings of the ACMI report are implemented by existing organizations like the World Bank or the UN or the African Union?

Today, we currently lack the cooperation necessary for adaptation. We talk about billions of dollars for climate adaptation, but adaptation finance is not flowing. With ACMI, we’re starting ahead of the curve in order to build new agency. We are not an implementing entity, we don’t want to reinvent the system but to inject a new and empirically informed, bottom-up trajectory. How do we measure our success? We’ve just been asked by the Latin America and Caribbean states to do the same thing as ACMI. The League of Arab States is asking for the same. The Pacific Island Nations as well. We’ve also received requests from countries to build blueprints for the hotspot-centric approach. We will do the same for cities. We may be doing something right if other people are asking us for the same.

In your Twitter bio you describe yourself as an “eternal optimist and pragmatic believer”. What kind of philosophy does that entail?

For me it’s that we can be the actors and architects of our future – versus being the subject. You need to have plans, but they never work 100%. You need big ambitions and to understand your limitations. Don’t blame yourself. Be nimble and adjust.

About the project

The Africa Climate Mobility Initiative Report

The full report

The report “African Shifts” was a multi-year effort and was proudly supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Based on latest climate research the study identified existing hotspots on the African continent and did extensive field research in the area. Combining qualitative insights with quantitative modelling they project four different scenarios based on growth, policy, and emission developments – and how climate stressors will impact population distribution in these possible futures. Through 50 workshops, with 200 partner organizations and close to 3,000 participating experts, scientists, affected communities and policy makers the researchers developed blueprints for various local needs in different scenarios like coastal areas cities or pastoral communities. 

To the Executive Summary 

The full report
The dossier on the topic
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