Senegal: The Impact of Climate Change on Vulnerable Populations

Posted by Jared Banks
March 16, 2010
Senegal Birds at Iles de la Madeleine

About the Author: Jared Banks is a Foreign Service Officer and a member of the International Migration Office in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

The U.S. government is trying to better understand the specific impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations. As part of that effort, I recently visited Senegal as a member of a Study Team on Climate Change and Migration sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, and co-coordinated by Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration and U.N. University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).

The relationship between climate change, the environment, and migration is increasingly attracting the interest of governments, international organizations, activists, academics, and the general public, and has generated an active debate across the globe. There is consensus that climate change contributes to migration, whether through rapid-onset natural disasters or environmental changes over a longer period of time. However, it is often difficult to disaggregate the impact of climate change from other environmental factors and the response of those affected varies from country to country.

Migration obviously depends upon many factors, such as livelihood, food security, national policies, the strength of local culture and identity, political stability, degree of mobility in past livelihoods (e.g. herding vs. farming), access to health services and education, and legal mechanisms and/or illegal routes for migration. Current research indicates that environmentally induced migration most often leads to internal displacement. Migrants who are displaced by natural disasters or other environmental factors such as climate change and who cross an international border do not normally qualify as "refugees" under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. They are difficult to distinguish from economic migrants due to the fact that much of the reason for their flight was the collapse of livelihoods precipitated by environmental factors.

The visit to Senegal provided me an opportunity to discuss this issue with policymakers in the national and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, academics who are studying the phenomenon, and leaders of local communities that have been affected by displacements. The team was also able to examine first-hand the impact of environmental and climate changes at very local levels, including among fishing, herding and agricultural communities. For example, we met with the leaders of a fishing community in Camberene (near Dakar), which has experienced both an inflow and outflow of migrants.

The local imam opened the meeting with a prayer and told us the story of the founding of the community by a religious man -- a history that continues to influence the community's generally welcoming attitude toward incoming migrants, including those leaving farming communities in northern Senegal because of desertification. The community members lamented the loss of their beaches to coastal erosion, the rising sea water temperatures, and the slow decline of fishing as a sustainable livelihood. Some of the women said that it is good for young men to migrate abroad, but others lamented that migration isn't a long-term solution for the community and that the financial crisis has taught them that they cannot always count on remittances.

We also met with a community in Lebar Boye in northern Senegal where the land has become too salinated to farm because of the decreased amount of fresh water, accentuated by a dam that was built to prevent flooding. As a result, most of their children were now working in urban centers. Some farming continued in the Senegal River Valley despite the drought conditions because of a government-funded irrigation system. At one of the farms, we met two young men from Guinea Bissau who travel north to work during the dry season and then head back to Guinea Bissau during their community's farming season. Climate change and the consequences are not bound by national boundaries.

This trip was a timely reminder that the debate about climate change is not only about science or the recent meetings in Copenhagen -- it is also about the lives of real people. The challenge is to address the present and potential impact of climate change with the appropriate policies simultaneously at the global, regional, national and community levels.



Florida, USA
March 17, 2010

Yonason in Florida writes:

You really should stop pushing what has been shown to be mistaken at best, and a scam at worst. There is NO anthropogenic climate change.

The house of cards has collapsed.

If you want people to take you seriously, you need to deal in facts, not fantasy.

New Mexico, USA
March 17, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Re: "The challenge is to address the present and potential impact of climate change with the appropriate policies simultaneously at the global, regional, national and community levels."

@ Jared,

If these folks had jobs planting trees they wouldn't need to migrate.

I have a real good idea why change happens, and that's when folks get moving on an idea that addresses both problems at once.

On one hand you have probably the biggest human resource problem that drawfs our own unemployment rate.

On the other, desertification requires a lot of labor to combat, and for those who do not understand yet that climate change is indeed a man made thing just look at some sat. photos( before 1980-today)

Pick a country...any country, including our own. The deforestation is pretty shocking.

Then take into account that trees support sustainable agriculture, and act like the lungs of the planet to scrub the air we breath.

Then accept the fact that any policy made by human in government can be improved upon to better serve the people.

And there you have the makings of political will to get the job done right in the halls of government.

In theory anyway.

That's just my logic talkin' whether folks take me seriously or not, I don't suppose I'll be proven wrong over time.

Unless this gets done on an "industrial scale" like the Manhattan Project with every nation involved, this emerging crisis will get a lot worse and we are now at that defining moment as to whether it will be too little, to late if not properly funded by governments and the IMF/World bank.

We have millions of refugees in squalid camps for years on end and trillions of trees to plant over the next decade, to make the difference to everyone's quality of life in time to prevent serious concequences.

The whole way we in the international community deal with population migration and refugees needs a rethink.

Best regards,


Dan S.
District Of Columbia, USA
April 12, 2010

Dan S. in Washington, DC writes:

The evidence that climate change is happening is pretty concrete at this point. Whether or not humans are causing it is still questionable. I think that we can all agree that the levels of pollution are getting out of control. The United States needs to become a leader for the rest of the world in sustainable living. I think that the cap and trade system is a great way to give companies an incentive to reduce their pollution levels. This will allow US companies to continue to lead the way in innovation and profitability, while also taking the initiative to improve the current state of the environment. This will give future generation the chance to enjoy all the wonders of nature that we now take for granted.

I understand that skeptics believe US companies will lose a competitive advantage over foreign companies who are not subject to these regulations. But at some point people need to realize that natural resources are finite and once they are gone that is it. We as a country need to take the initiative to lead the rest of the world in becoming more sustainable.

Louise R.
Oregon, USA
October 9, 2010

Louise R. in Oregon writes:

The Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology for the Environment is working to alleviate the impact of climate change on poor rural villages in Senegal through reforestation, rehabilitation of village wells, and training in the use of appropriate, locally available technologies. Find us at ""


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