Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Climate Change and Migration in Coastal Areas in South Asia

  • Md Rezwan SiddiquiEmail author
  • Md Anwar Hossain
Living reference work entry


Climate Change and Migration

Confusion and contention has surrounded the debate about defining the terms that describe migration caused by climate change. The reason might be attributed to global politics, because it is impossible to address this issue without political considerations; to intellectual conflict, that is, whether the discourse takes place within natural, social, or political science; or to the scarcity of significant empirical evidence (Piguet et al. 2011; McCarthy et al. 2001). Therefore, the two most relevant and widely cited institutions – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – have used the term “environmental migration” to describe migration that has been triggered either directly or indirectly by climate change and label it as one of the subsets of human mobility behavior. The IPCC (2018) identifies migration as environmental “where environmental risks or changes plays a significant role in … the migration decision and destination.” Such migration may occur due to transformations in the environment that negatively impact the lives and livelihood of a population (IOM 2014). This migration could be of any form: temporary or permanent, planned or forced, local or international. In any case, it is neither meaningful nor possible to isolate environmental factors from other factors of migration, as all migration decisions are inevitably multicausal (IPCC 2014). Therefore, in this entry, the terms “climate migrant(s)” and “climate change migration” are used to denote any kind of human mobility caused by climate change or its direct or indirect effects.

South Asia (Fig. 1)

According to the World Bank, South Asia comprises eight countries. The region is bounded by Afghanistan and Pakistan in the west, Bangladesh in the east, Bhutan and Nepal in the north, and the islands of the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the south, including India. Of them, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Nepal are landlocked countries. This region is limited by the Himalayas in the north and by the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean in the south. South Asia is well known for the three major rivers that have shaped human civilization there: the Ganges, the Indus, and the Brahmaputra. This region is one of the most highly populated and fastest-growing economies in the world and exhibits rapid urbanization and industrialization (World Bank Group 2019).
Fig. 1

Map of South Asia. (Source: United Nations 2011)


South Asia is considered one of the most environmentally vulnerable regions due to its geographical and socioeconomic characteristics. Its geographical location and physiographic characteristics may exacerbate the effects of climate change: low elevations and increased glacier melting in the Himalayas could result in more severe river flooding, and the rising sea level could cause salinity intrusion in the coastal areas and islands (Nicholls et al. 2016). Moreover, in the midlands, dry-season water crises could substantially increase in severity due to fewer rainy days coupled with higher temperatures (Ahmed and Suphachalasai 2014). Several studies have noted that while South Asia has limited climatic differences compared with other international regions, the area is most vulnerable because of its socioeconomic conditions (Haque 2005; Hugo 2010; DECCMA 2018; Rigaud et al. 2018). High poverty rates, a high dependence on agriculture, and insufficient infrastructure together with poor governance foster climate change vulnerability in the region. In addition, climate change could affect food security, impacting agricultural capacity and the individuals who rely on agriculture for their livelihood. All these factors, directly and indirectly, influence human migration, especially to cities and safer locations. Yet the people of this region are often hailed as the global leader in climate action; for example, Bangladesh is often praised as a global leader for its practices of climate change adaptation, and Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, leading the climate mitigation movement (Huq et al. 2003; National Geographic Society 2017).

The coastal areas of South Asia have extraordinary significance because of their ecological richness (e.g., the largest continuous stretch of mangrove, the largest sea beach, densely populated islands), their role in the economy (both production and trade), the livelihoods they support (especially through agriculture, fisheries, and tourism), and their recreational value (Neumann et al. 2015). The coastal areas of South Asia comprise less than 2% of the global coastline, yet they supports a population of 1.9 billion, which is projected to increase to 2.3 billion by 2050 (Rigaud et al. 2018). Geographically, the South Asian coastal region is vulnerable to climate change because of rising sea levels, extreme climatic events, and its high population density. Several studies have argued that climate change impacts may cause displacement of a large percentage of this coastal population (Siddiqui 2014; Martin et al. 2014; Nicholls et al. 2016; Chen and Mueller 2018).

This entry addresses the factors affecting migration induced by climate change among the coastal population of South Asia, as well as the consequences of migration. We begin by analyzing recent literature to address how the region is experiencing changes in climate parameters and then outline and predict its multidimensional impacts. Then, we focus on both the biophysical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities of the region. Finally, we conclude with a discussion on the role of climate change in the migration of the coastal population and suggest potential implications of such migrations at the local and regional scale.

Present and Future Climate Change Scenarios in South Asia

Here, we will outline the regional climate change scenario in South Asia, as well as the vulnerabilities, as the basis for further discussion about the migration that might occur as a result. The study by Ahmed and Suphachalasai (2014) found that the observed warming trend of the South Asian region is consistent with the global trend of rising atmospheric temperature. The average temperature in this region increased in the past at a rate of about 0.75 °C per century. The study also argues that the warming rate has been relatively higher in the winter (0.91 °C per 100 years) and pre-monsoon season (0.77 °C per 100 years). The regions of western Afghanistan and southwestern Pakistan have experienced the largest increase in temperature (1.0–3.0 °C); however, in the coastal areas the change was slightly lower (1.0–1.5 °C) (Mani 2018). Unlike other regions around the world, the South Asian region did not show any clear trend in the change of annual rainfall in the last century. However, there was significant variation in rainfall for the monsoon season, especially the duration and number of rainy days (Ahmed and Suphachalasai 2014). Additionally, the sea level has been rising at a rate of 3.1 mm per year over the past decade, compared with the 1.7–2.4 mm per year rise of the twentieth century in Asia (Rigaud et al. 2018).

A significant number of studies have warned that future climate change will be more pronounced in the South Asian region in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth (Piguet et al. 2011; Asian Development Bank 2012). The temperature will increase at a faster rate, and the rainfall anomalies may be more frequent. Table 1 shows the predicted change in climatic conditions (temperature change and precipitation departure) in South Asian countries for 2080 from a 2000 baseline under the IPCC A1B emission scenario (Fig. 2).
Table 1

Temperature change and precipitation departure in South Asian countries for 2080 from 2000 baseline, under IPCC A1B scenario emission scenario


Temperature change (°C)

Precipitation departure (%)












−42.5 to 28.7







Sri Lanka



Source: Ahmed and Suphachalasai (2014)

Fig. 2

Spatiotemporal change in temperature (a) and precipitation departure (b) in South Asia from 2000 baseline, under the IPCC A1B scenario emission scenario (The A1B is one of several future greenhouse-gas-emission scenarios. It describes a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in the mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building, and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income and a balanced use of technology in the energy system across all sources (A1B) (Nakicenovic et al. 2000).). (a) Temperature change (°C). (b) Precipitation departure (%). (Source: Ahmed and Suphachalasai 2014)

The study estimates a steady increase in the atmospheric temperature in South Asia, nearly 4–5 °C, with more anomalies at the end of the twenty-first century for high-emission scenarios (Ahmed and Suphachalasai 2014). By that time, the mean surface temperature will also rise about 3–5 °C, which may be more pronounced over western and central India. Unlike the temperature, the changes in rainfall may not be consistent across periods or seasons (Ahmed and Suphachalasai 2014). Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka are predicted to experience increased annual rainfall. However, Preston et al. (2006) and Hugo et al. (2009) have predicted there might be greater variability in rainfall during the summer and monsoon seasons and a declining trend in winter rainfall. Rainfall variability both within the rainy season and between years is projected to rise in the future (Rigaud et al. 2018). Below, we will discuss how these changes in climatic parameters will play a crucial role in upsetting the life and livelihood of the population living in the coastal areas of South Asia.

Climate Change Impact and Vulnerability of the Coastal Areas of South Asia

South Asia is regarded as one of the global climate change “hotspots” because of its high exposure to climatic stresses along with its high level of vulnerability. The uncertainty and increasing trends in temperature and extreme weather events, along with floods and cyclones, are creating a growing number of climate-vulnerable areas in this region (Rigaud et al. 2018). The climate change vulnerability can be divided into two categories – biophysical vulnerability and socioeconomic vulnerability. Biophysical vulnerability is caused by changes in climatic parameters and the resulting extreme weather events. Socioeconomic vulnerability results from the poor condition of socioeconomic parameters like income level, poverty, educational level, social capital, and social networks. Thus, climate change vulnerability is the net outcome of both – the former related to risk and the latter related to adaptive capacity. Therefore, the overall climate change vulnerability and its results cannot be singled out as functions of changes in climate; rather, it depends on the socioeconomic situation and the resources, the sociocultural context, and the quality of governance and security (Hugo 2010). Further discussion below elaborates on how biophysical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities influence migration.

The Biophysical Vulnerability of South Asia

There are several dimensions to the already-experienced and anticipated biophysical vulnerabilities from climate change in South Asia. The most critical and complex threat from climate change is its impact on the region’s water ecosystem. Increased temperatures in the winter and pre-monsoon season could potentially create severe water stress, especially in India and Pakistan. The declining flow of water from the mountain glaciers could also result in the scarcity of fresh water, especially in India, Bhutan, and Nepal. The annual runoff from the Indus River could decrease by 14% and 27% in the Indus and Brahmaputra (region) by 2050 (McCarthy et al. 2001). There is also increasing concern about the availability of fresh water in the islands. Water for streams (especially those of islands) is highly dependent on a sufficient supply of highland precipitation, and thus rainfall variability could modify the current supply of fresh water.

Contrary to the early model-based claims of climate scientists, recent analyses have found that saltwater intrusion could be the biggest threat for this region in the near future (Nicholls et al. 2016; Chen and Mueller 2018). The climate change basis of this coastal hazard originates from the reduced water and sediment supplies from the Himalayan mountain range. Dasgupta et al. (2015) estimated that changes in salinity may reduce the freshwater supply from 40.8% to 17.1% in the rivers of coastal Bangladesh and that the percentage of suitable space for agricultural irrigation may decrease by 29.7% by 2050. Furthermore, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are also at risk for saltwater intrusion (Kelkar and Bhadwal 2007). This slow-onset process could modify the coastal ecosystem, decrease soil fertility and therefore crop production, cause human health hazards, and threaten livelihoods. The evidence for such vulnerability is already evident in the mangrove forests of India and Bangladesh.

The region is also prone to a number of coastal natural hazards, especially riverine and tidal flooding, cyclones, storm surges, erosion, waterlogging, and drought. Sea level rise (SLR) poses a significant threat for this region, especially the deltaic areas of the Ganges–Brahmaputra, the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna, and the Indus Rivers (Hugo 2010). Low-lying islands of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean are also regarded as vulnerable to SLR, high-intensity cyclones, and storm surges (Siddiqui 2014). Climate change is expected to increase both the number and intensity of floods and storms (Asian Development Bank 2012). The coastal areas of Bangladesh (Barisal, Khulna, and Chittagong), India (such as West Bengal and coastal areas, including Chennai and Mumbai), and southern Pakistan (coastal Karachi) have already proven to be prone to significant coastal flooding. In contrast, the landlocked northern regions of South Asia suffer from the uncertainty of precipitation, glacial melts, floods, and landslides.

In the coastal areas of South Asia, mangroves and coral reefs are the two of the most vital components of the coastal ecosystem, and they are already suffering the consequences of climate change. Climate change will affect the vegetation, productivity, and biodiversity of these ecosystems. Therefore, based on the biophysical vulnerability, several climate change hotspots can be identified within this densely populated region of South Asia:
  1. 1.

    Riverine deltas of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan

  2. 2.

    Highlands of Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan

  3. 3.

    Arid and semiarid regions of India and Pakistan

  4. 4.

    Islands and coral reefs of Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, and Bangladesh

  5. 5.

    Low-lying coastal regions of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan


The Socioeconomic Vulnerability of South Asia

South Asia, one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change in the world, is home to one-fourth of the world’s population (Eckstein et al. 2017). Its vulnerability is the result of not only the geographical location and characteristics of the region but also its social, economic, institutional, and political conditions. The socioeconomic vulnerability of this region can be attributed mainly to the high population density, dependency on a subsistence economy, and poor governance. However, natural disasters are historically considered responsible for the poor economic growth of this region. From the earlier discussion, we note that South Asia has experienced climate change patterns and impacts similar to or worse than the global scenario.

South Asia is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the world, with an average per capita GDP of US$1,840 (2017), much lower than the global GDP of US$10,714 (World Bank Group 2018a). The poverty rate is also very high in this region (16.2% of the total population). Similarly, its poor position on the Human Development Index (HDI) can be used as a proxy to understand the magnitude of the region’s very low resilience to climate change impacts (Table 2).
Table 2

GDP from and employment in agriculture and HDI of South Asian countries


% of GDP from agriculture (2016)a

% of employment in agriculture (2016)b

HDI (2017)c





South Asia
































Sri Lanka





aWorld Bank Group (2018b)

bWorld Bank Group (2018c)

cNeumann et al. (2015)

dUNDP (2017)

According to the World Bank Group (2018a), about 26.5% of the global employment is in the agricultural sector, while in South Asia, the proportion is approximately 43.1%, although this rate differs significantly from country to country: in the Maldives, 7.65% of the country relies on agriculture, whereas in Nepal, 72.28% does (World Bank Group 2018a). Because climate change could directly affect agricultural productivity, the population that relies on agriculture could experience loss of income and employment.

A recent study shows that climate change may reduce food production in India by 20% by 2030 and 30% by 2050 (Édes et al. 2012). With a 1 °C increase in temperature, wheat yields will decrease by 6–9% in the arid, semiarid, and subhumid regions of Pakistan (Sultana and Ali 2006). In Sri Lanka, rice production is predicted to drop 6% with only a 0.5 °C increase in temperature; increased temperatures will also adversely affect the production of tea, rubber, and cotton, which are the most important products of the Sri Lankan economy (MENR 2000; Hirji et al. 2017). All these risks of lower agricultural production could make it difficult for a vast amount of the population to have an adequate supply of food.

Human Migration in South Asia

Human migration usually results from a complex, multi-criterion decision-making process that operates across different spatial and temporal scales and domains. Although the main driver of migration in South Asia is uneven economic development across the region, environmental factors are important and can influence the scale and pattern of the migration process (Seto 2011). Migration, over both long and short distances, has always been a part of peoples’ lives in South Asia, originating from efforts to reduce the risk from reoccurring natural disasters and agrarian crises (Van Schendel 2009). Additionally, both voluntary and involuntary migration has taken place here in response to political changes (e.g., colonization and decolonization, wars, riots) and for religious and ethical reasons (Van Schendel 2009). The largest migration took place during the decolonization period of 1947–1948 in the Indian subcontinent. However, during recent times, migration in this delta has been predominantly shaped by economic effects. Recently, conflict and political migration have become a major source of concern in this region. Climate change and environmental stresses are also shaping migration, mainly by affecting peoples’ livelihoods (DECCMA 2018). In 2016, about 3.6 million new internal displacements occurred in South Asia due to disasters (IDMC 2017). Moreover, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka were among the top ten countries in the world for disaster-related displacements in 2017 (IDMC 2017).

Internal migration in the South Asian countries can be characterized mainly as rural-to-urban in nature. In recent times, this type of migration has been the center of policy discourse, because of its high visibility and impact on urbanization and industrialization. Rural poverty, landlessness, and the crises in livelihood and employment opportunities push rural people to move from their homeland. Urban areas, especially the large centers, offer diversified economic opportunities as hubs of economic growth and prosperity for their countries. South Asian countries are experiencing rapid urbanization along with industrialization, and manufacturing sectors have a significant number of jobs, especially for the unskilled poor; thus, the urban areas have become a common destination for poor rural migrants. Migration statistics show that about one in every five persons has moved away from their birth district in South Asia.

Climate Change and Migration in Coastal South Asia

Almost three decades ago, in 1990, the IPCC suggested that the most significant effect of climate change will be migration, which will displace millions of people worldwide. Climate change is expected to trigger human mobility through both sudden and slow-onset atmospheric and hydrological events and mechanisms. Therefore, it is likely to reduce the security of people’s livelihoods in certain environments, and that process may encourage people to migrate. Migration on a permanent and temporary basis has always been one of the most critical survival strategies adopted by people in the face of natural or anthropogenic disasters Smith P (2007). However, there is a debate about whether such migration is a successful adaptation option or not (Bhagat 2017; DECCMA 2018).

First of all, we need to accept that climate change cannot be the prime cause, nor even one of the top causes, of migration in the South Asian region. Migration behavior is predominantly driven by economic reasons here, and climate change factors usually act in conjunction with a range of other socioeconomic elements (DECCMA 2018; Hugo 2010). For example, climate change could contribute to migration by undermining livelihoods and security, primarily by exacerbating economic inequalities (UNHCR 2008; Piguet et al. 2011). For this reason, the vast amount of modern migration literature finds it difficult to separate environmentally caused and non-environmentally caused migration (Seto 2011).

It is also challenging to find direct links between migration and rapid-onset phenomena like tropical cyclones, storms, torrential rains, and floods. And for the cases of permanent and long-range migration, determining the links is next to impossible (Nicholls et al. 2016). Drought and desertification play an unpredictable and contextual role in triggering migration because of their effects on agricultural productivity through water stress. In contrast, sea level rise (SLR) and its secondary effects (higher tides, salinization, coastal erosion) have a clear connection with and a strong potential to cause migration (Piguet et al. 2011). Salinity and its impacts on agricultural production, along with catastrophic disasters like cyclones, storms, and floods, are driving human migration (Nicholls et al. 2016).

Keeping in mind recent statistics, we would like to know how the coastal population is affected by climate change. For example, a significant portion of the rural coastal population of South Asia is dependent on marine fisheries for their livelihood, and climate change is threatening this sector (World Bank 2009). In the Maldives, the coral reefs and the baitfish stocks in the reefs are threatened by ocean acidification and increased temperature effect of climate change, which in turn has reduced marine fish production (World Bank 2009). These events could easily create a cascading effect on the lives and livelihood of the dependent population, forcing them to change occupations or migrate.

Studies have also found that migration in South Asia is generally directed from rural to urban areas and that these migrants frequently move to neighboring districts rather than undertake long-distance relocation (Haque 2005; Siddiqui 2014; Davis et al. 2018). Instead of large metropolitan areas, migration toward nearby small-to-medium-size urban areas is an increasingly common trend, predominantly for individuals seeking to maintain their livelihoods (DECCMA 2018). A recent study by the Nazrul Islam Urban Studio at the University of Dhaka (2018, unpublished) on the Dhaka Metropolitan Region of Bangladesh found that approximately one-fifth of migrations are climate induced (both directly and indirectly). Among them, more than half of the migrants come from 10 coastal districts (out of the 18 costal districts) of Bangladesh. Most of the migrants were previously involved in subsistence activities for their livelihoods. The study found that 40% of the climate migrants were involved in agriculture and fisheries before leaving their place of origin. Additionally, more than 80% of migrants say that poor resilience to climate change coupled with their poor economic condition forced them to leave their birthplace. DECCMA (2018), in contrast, found that only 2.87% of coastal migrations are solely environmentally induced (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Climate migration hotspots that are expected to have high levels of migration in South Asia by 2030 and 2050. (Source: Rigaud et al. 2018)

The largest number of people affected by climate change will be mainly in South Asia due to its high population density and underdeveloped economy (Fang et al. 2014). Under different scenarios, by 2050 in South Asia the projected internal climate migration could be as high as 40.5 million, with the lowest estimate at 16.9 million (Rigaud et al. 2018). This will constitute 0.75–1.56% of the total population, up to 25% of all migrants in this region (Rigaud et al. 2018). The highest portion of this migration will occur from the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Davis et al. (2018) predict that 0.9–2.1 million people could be displaced in Bangladesh just by direct inundation caused by SLR. By 2050, the coastal population of South Asia is predicted to grow 3–66% compared to the population in 2000 under different demographic scenarios (Merkens et al. 2016). During the second part of the century, this growth is predicted to slow down, whereas coastal land area will increase from the accretion of the sediment (Merkens et al. 2016), to which more people will relocate. Thus, the population growth pattern indicates that in the future more people will be vulnerable to the climate change, and the migration rate could increase substantially.

Impact of Climate Change Migration in South Asia

Climate change migration in South Asia could have substantial implications for economic and human development. However, the effects of this migration depend largely on whether it is voluntary or not. Unfortunately, a large portion of environmental migration is involuntary and thus found to be less beneficial for the migrants themselves (DECCMA 2018).

Debate is growing about the impact of migration on both the origins and destinations of the migration. Additionally, in developing regions like South Asia, the migrants do not always sever their attachment from their birthplace. In most cases, they leave their family members behind and send back money to support them. There is also some evidence that when living and working in another place, especially in the cities, temporary migrants invest in their homeland to build assets (World Bank Group 2019). Thus, migration can be considered as a way of reducing poverty or improving economic conditions. In the long run, such migration could reduce the pressure on resources in the home districts and bring economic benefit to them; therefore, migration may offer support for community members who stay behind (Hugo 2010).

Large cities could benefit from the migration process because these migrants meet the demand for cheap labor for industrial development and urbanization. Moreover, because the informal economy predominates in South Asian cities, city dwellers receive those services from the migrants at a cheap price. Rapid urbanization due to migration is also creating severe pressure on city infrastructures and services, which can have an adverse effect on the quality of life (Hossain 2018). In the rural areas, however, the economy faces a severe labor crisis as the working-age population moves out. The lack of labor in the high-demand seasons there increases production costs for both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.

In addition, lending labor to other cities or other countries via temporary migration primarily in response to the slow-onset environmental deterioration is one of the common coping strategies practiced in rural South Asia. For example, as a result of SLR, the destination locations in Bangladesh can anticipate additional demands for 594,000 jobs and 197,000 housing units by 2050 (Davis et al. 2018). However, because the labor force is the first to migrate to accommodate changing environmental or economic difficulties, migration can influence the local labor supply, particularly in agriculture. Therefore, the subsistence economy of the location of origin is influenced by this labor shift toward urban areas, which subsequently encourages stagnation at the origin.


It would be wise to incorporate the implications of climate change migration in all economic and human development policies. Following the philosophy of transformative development, the emphasis should be on assisting the community to make proper migration decisions, further streamlining the migration process and helping both migrants and nonmigrants. Any attempt to forcibly stop this migration may not turn out to be good for the growing economy of this region. Therefore, the real challenge is to maintain and, where possible, increase the productivity and resilience of the biophysical systems and community, both at the destination and origin of migration. Additionally, properly addressing climate change regionally and locally is of the utmost importance to minimize the growing tension in South Asia over migration. Last but most important, priority should still be given to climate mitigation, because adherence to the UN’s Paris Agreement to substantially cut the greenhouse gas emissions could reduce up to 72% of the climate migration in this region.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social RelationsEast West UniversityDhakaBangladesh
  2. 2.Department of Geography and EnvironmentUniversity of DhakaDhakaBangladesh

Section editors and affiliations

  • S. Jeff Birchall
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Urban and Regional Planning, Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada