A pair of hands creating a large pot of of clay, on a pottery spinning wheel
Image Credit: Earl Wilcox on unsplash.com

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimates that over the next three decades, climate change will force close to 143 million people to leave their homes. In both India and the US, climate migration has already begun, particularly in coastal areas and river deltas that are vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding. Indeed, the XDI Gross Domestic Climate Risk dataset—which compiled the physical risk of damage from climate change in over 2,600 territories—shows that 80 percent of the world’s most vulnerable provinces and states are located in India and the US. People in both countries often remain unaware of the vulnerability of living in these high-risk areas.

In the US, the federal government is already compensating Indigenous tribes to relocate. According to a 2021 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, nearly five million people have been internally displaced due to climate change in India. But while climate migration is all but inevitable, it can be mitigated, as demonstrated by the actions of farmers and nonprofits on Majuli Island.

Located in the Indian state of Assam, Majuli is an island in the Brahmaputra River. It is the largest river island in the world and the most populous, with over 160,000 people living in 243 villages. The island is vulnerable to changing climatic conditions, including unusually heavy rainfall; flood-induced erosion by the Brahmaputra River has destroyed half of the island, harming local agriculture and ways of life.

However, locals and nonprofits are working to sustain their traditional livelihoods. In particular, farming communities have found ways to cope with increased flooding and erosion by using strategies such as floating farms. Nonprofit organizations are also filling a pivotal role by providing resources and preparing communities for the ways that climate change will reshape their lives.

Climate change is affecting the homes and livelihoods of Indigenous communities

Kamala Kanta, a 74-year-old resident of Majuli’s Indigenous Mising village and a boat maker by profession, has always lived with the river’s seasonal floods. “In my entire life, I have moved 12 homes at least. That’s what we do. We leave our homes and belongings when flood arrives, then we rebuild,” he says. Like Kanta, most Majuli residents are used to this way of life.

However, flooding and soil erosion have increased in recent decades due to climate change, which has affected precipitation patterns in Assam, exacerbating its seasonal floods, accelerating erosion, and shrinking the island’s landmass. A 2018 study conducted by India’s Department of Science and Technology found that Assam was the most vulnerable of the Indian Himalayan states to climate change, and many experts believe that Majuli Island might soon disappear, resulting in hundreds of thousands of climate refugees. In 1914, the geographical area of Majuli island was 733.79 square kilometers (approximately 181,323 acres). By 2004, it had been reduced to 502.21 square kilometers (approximately 123,852 acres). The river island lost 31 percent of its land in just under a century, putting it on track to experience the same fate as many Pacific islands that will likely disappear in the coming decades.

Salmora Village is another community on Majuli Island where people are facing climate migration. The village’s centuries-old pottery culture may soon vanish, along with the island itself, as the Brahmaputra River is eroding the clay that the potters, known as kumars, use.

The local government claims that clay extraction pits dug by the kumars have stripped the riverbanks of its sturdy top layer of soil, leaving them more susceptible to the erosion caused by climate change. One member of the Brahmaputra Board explains that when potters dig for their clay, they remove the strong layer of soil that holds the riverbanks, leaving a loose, sandy layer behind. As such, the kumars are no longer allowed to dig on the riverbanks, restricting their ability to obtain the glutinous clay they need, according to Jaachi Hazarika, a potter. “This has affected our livelihood. I have to travel to different villages to obtain the proper clay for my pots. Earlier it was just a few meters away from my house, but has this [change in where I get my clay] stopped the erosion?” she asks.

The answer is no. To the contrary, the increased intensity of the region’s monsoons is exacerbating erosion problems. Every year after a flood, dozens of communities migrate elsewhere. Most of Hazarika’s neighbors have stopped making pottery and have migrated to cities in search of better opportunities. However, moving away is unthinkable for some Salmora residents, who want to maintain their traditional livelihoods.

Government Action to Date

Thousands of dollars have been spent by successive governments to stop erosion in Majuli. Some of the measures taken include the construction of embankments to contain or control the flow of water, and the use of geobags, which are filled with soil and sand to form a barrier against waves and currents in erosion-prone areas.

However, by impeding the flow of water down the river’s mainstem, the embankments force water down new channels, shifting the Brahmaputra’s natural course, destroying land and crops, and causing more erosion and landslides.

According to Tirtha Saikia, joint director of the North-East Affected Area Development Society, a volunteer-based nonprofit organization, embankments negatively impact communities everywhere. “It’s a structural measure, which always has a timeline for its functions. [After] a certain amount of time, embankments rupture, and if they are not repaired, it causes enormous damage,” he explains. In Assam, floods are getting worse because so many embankments fail, aggravating floods downstream.

Saikia believes that the government should work with local communities and other stakeholders to develop a holistic, multifaceted approach to ensure sustainable development and conservation of the island. Some long-term solutions would include, “building climate-resilient infrastructure like raised housing structures [and] high raised water sources for accessing drinking water, promoting sustainable agriculture practices, such as the floating farms, and improving disaster preparedness.”

Floating Farms for Farmers

In 2019, floods damaged over 1,875 hectares (approximately 4,633 acres) of cropland in Majuli. But some farmers and their families have found ways to thrive despite the rapidly changing conditions. One such farmer is 28-year-old Moni Narah, a resident of Jomud Chuk village of Majuli who has been farming on a floating water platform since 2021. This method has helped her and 39 other families secure their farms.

Since 2016, the nonprofit, South Asian Forum for Environment, or SAFE, has been creating floating farms in Majuli. Made of bamboo, wood, and other locally available materials, the farms are placed on rafts made of drums, bamboo, and shade net.

“Vegetables are then cultivated in soil mixed with grow bags,” explains Amrita Chatterjee, SAFE’s director of communications. Farmers grow organic vegetables such as chilis, carrots, tomato, okra and more, and they can now grow vegetables year-round as the floating farms rise when water levels rise. In addition to providing financial assistance, SAFE helps farmers select ponds for their floating farms and complete paper documentation.

Ideally, sustainable farming efforts along with improved disaster-recovery policies that enable people to maintain their livelihoods and social structures will help people to stay in place, reducing the number of climate refugees.

Participating farmers can now grow enough to sustain themselves and make a living. “We now have enough for our consumption as well as to sell in the local markets,” says Chatterjee.

In short, by combining traditional knowledge with innovative technology and design, Majuli farmers, with the help of nonprofits such as SAFE, are demonstrating how sustainable agriculture can be achieved in the face of environmental challenges, mitigating the number of climate refugees.

According to Chatterjee, the floating-farm method has enormous potential beyond Majuli. In India, where more than half of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood, floating farms offer a promising way to increase agricultural productivity while conserving precious land and water resources.

The Need for Climate Migration Policy

Ideally, sustainable farming efforts along with improved disaster-recovery policies that enable people to maintain their livelihoods and social structures will help people to stay in place, reducing the number of climate refugees. However, despite the demonstrated success of sustainable farming efforts, and even with enhanced disaster-recovery funding and policies, the Indian government needs to prepare for the surge of climate migration that is likely to occur in the coming years.

According to the Internal Displacement Centre, India should be keeping records to track climate migration and displacement in the county. However, at the government level, climate-induced migration is largely still seen as a one-off instance, and there is little institutionalized support for such data gathering. There is also a significant gap in climate-migration protection policies, despite a likely increase in both internal migration and migration to India from neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal; thus far, climate migrants have little to no legal standing in India, even though India is the largest receiver of refugees in South Asia. Without such protection, trafficking and interethnic conflict will likely worsen.

Acknowledging that climate change is a new driver of migration will be key to a more committed and meaningful policy discourse and response.

Like India, the US is lagging on its development of a climate-migration policy. Like Majuli’s many villages, cities in the US, such as New Orleans, New York City, and Miami, are quickly becoming vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Indeed, in 2022, close to three million US residents were displaced due to natural disasters, The Guardian reports. Disaster aid from both public and private sources has been unable to keep up with need. While agriculture is not widespread in these US cities as in Majuli, if the displacement of urban residents in the United States is to be mitigated, communities and the nonprofits that support them must embrace the type of climate-adaptation measures exemplified by floating farms.

In short, from new weather patterns to growing climate migration, India and the US have much in common. In both countries, adapting to changing precipitation patterns, ramping up flood and other climate-disaster recovery and relocation programs, and incentivizing growth in less vulnerable areas can help prepare populations and governments for climate change and migration. But first, acknowledging that climate change is a new driver of migration will be key to a more committed and meaningful policy discourse and response.