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NTS Seminar on 'Climate Change, Migration and Human Security in Southeast Asia'

Date: Friday, 27 May 2011
Time: 10am – 12pm
Venue: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Chairperson: Professor Lorraine Elliott, Visiting Senior Fellow and Lead Researcher of the Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters Programme, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies



The Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II has suggested that, in some parts of the world, climate-related disruptions of human populations are likely to occur both within states and across national borders, with sudden sharp spikes in rural to urban migration in some countries, and the exacerbation of shortfalls in food production, rural poverty and urban unrest in others. Given Southeast Asia’s high degree of vulnerability to climate change, the nature and extent of climate-induced migration is an important environmental, social and political challenge for the region’s peoples and governments.

In this seminar, participants of a recent study group on ‘Climate Change, Migration and Human Security in Southeast Asia’ shared their findings on: (1) the nature of possible climate-induced migration in the region; (2) whether climate-induced migration is also a security issue (and, if so, for whom); and (3) how security consequences, particularly human security consequences, can be managed.


Public Policy Matters on Climate Change and Migration in Indonesia: The Case of the City of Jakarta

Presenter: Dr Triarko Nurlambang, Director/Head, Research Center for Applied Geography, University of Indonesia, Indonesia.

In his presentation, Dr Triarko Nurlambang highlighted existing as well as potential impacts of climate change in Jakarta, Indonesia. The effects of changes in climate patterns, such as the rising sea levels in Jakarta, are visible and severe. These phenomena are further exacerbated by increase in population size and density in Jakarta. The combination of the above will inevitably lead to greater pressure on residents, and more intense competition for access to increasingly limited risk-free land.

In terms of disaster preparedness, communities in Jakarta (such as Muara Baru on the northern coast) are unfortunately ill-prepared to face the challenges. The government has also not given enough attention to tackling the problem. Yet, despite the above, the effects of climate change have so far not led to any voluntary migration. Rather, research has demonstrated that people are much more willing to adapt to changing circumstances than to migrate.

That said, however, Dr Nurlambang noted that, eventually, some residents in Jakarta will likely have no choice but to migrate (if the sea level rise by 2050 is as projected). The form of migration may differ; some may be involved in permanent relocation while others may make temporary or seasonal movements. These distinctions must be taken into account in all discussions on climate change and migration.

The greatest impacts on potential migration patterns are said to come from development and spatial plans, but there is a need to determine the degree of vulnerability of the affected areas. Very often, the areas which are developed are those that are attractive from an economic point of view, but risky from the environmental perspective. Furthermore, development patterns create economic incentives for people to remain in vulnerable areas.

Dr Nurlambang identified a need for increased education, research and focus on climate change and its potential consequences in Jakarta, as well as various vulnerable regions in Indonesia. He further noted that there is still room for improvement in capacity building and government accountability in Indonesia. Finally, he suggested, there remains an urgent need to promote sustainable development as the best form of defence in the face of the potential negative impacts of climate change.

Click here for the presentation slide.


The Smokescreen Effect: Climate, Migration, Security and Gender

Presenter: Associate Professor Edsel E. Sajor, Coordinator, Urban Environmental Management, School of Environment, Resources and Development (SERD), Asian Institute for Technology (AIT), Thailand
*Joint paper with Associate Professor Bernadette P. Resurreccion, SERD, AIT

Associate Professor Edsel Sajor began his presentation by observing that there had been attempts to securitise the issue of climate change. This has been particularly evident in the case of debates on climate-induced migration. Climate change has been presented as a potential trigger for mass-scale migration that may in turn lead to insecurity. The large movements of people have been pictured as extremely dangerous; the mere possibility of that happening has raised alarm. Prof. Sajor however noted that such assertions can be problematic as they are generally based on large over-simplifications made about migration processes and the specific effects of climate change.

Prof. Sajor further stressed that the effects of climate change on migration patterns are at best mere guesswork. Decisions to migrate are influenced by a great number of factors, and focusing on geophysical factors alone would narrow and limit the perspective to particular push factors. Hence, even using the words ‘climate refugees’ makes it impossible to debate the migration and climate change nexus in any meaningful way. The discourse is not only of dubious usefulness but can also be seen as dangerous. At its core, it presents people as uncontrollable masses that threaten stability. The discourse is one that is then often used to justify, and call for, tighter migration and border controls. These developments take place despite the lack of evidence for possible links between migration and conflicts.

According to Prof. Sajor, questions should be asked regarding what the discourse actually tells us, and what it in fact achieves. The securitised discourse on climate change, he suggested, actually hides more than reveals about the complex workings of climate change on people’s decisions, welfare and livelihoods; and overlooks the fact that migration is only a part of a spectrum of possible responses to environmental stresses. It prompts regulatory measures, which in the end may turn out to be counter-productive. It also blurs the merits of the voluminous scholarship that focuses on and addresses the complex and differentiating dynamics behind migration, including gender and migration (such as causes beyond push-pull factors and the different types of responses to environmental stresses).

Prof. Sajor also noted that this discourse deflects attention from further understanding the nature of vulnerability, in particular, the workings of power and governance at various scales and arenas among different genders, races and ethnicities. These workings constrain the adoption of holistic adaptation and mitigation measures (which are empowering and equitable) among environmentally and economically vulnerable people and groups located in at-risk areas.

Prof. Sajor suggested that what is perhaps needed is for a gender perspective to be added to the current debate. Disaster studies have commonly defined migrants, especially women migrants, as a particularly vulnerable group. However, vulnerability is not an intrinsic characteristic of being a ‘woman’ or a ‘migrant’, but indicates historically and socially specific patterns of practices, processes and power relations that render some groups or persons more disadvantaged than others. For instance, in the flood-prone areas north of Hanoi (Vietnam) and south of Manila (Philippines), women are most vulnerable to flooding calamities, not because of their being intrinsically women, but because they constitute the bulk of the settlers in these low-lying areas that have become the places of residence of workers in nearby factories that largely employ women workers. Thus, adaptation ought to be specifically defined here as migrants’ gender- and socially-differentiated capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a disaster, particularly through their networks, resources and spatial mobility.

Prof. Sajor summed up his presentation by stating that current discourses that raise alarm over mass migration due to climate change sidestep contemporary migration studies demonstrating that migration is a set of differentiated processes, fraught with multiple drivers and contradictory outcomes. A gender perspective is useful in teasing out migrants’ differentiated dynamics in their adaptation and their complex interactions in the context of climate change.

Click here for the presentation slide.


The ADB’s Role in Addressing Climate Change and Migration

Presenter: Mr Robert Dobias, Senior Advisor, Climate Change Programme, Regional and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Philippines.

Mr Robert Dobias started his presentation by giving a general account of the ADB climate change programme. He stated that the ADB has been assisting its developing member countries (DMCs) to address climate change challenges for nearly two decades, and now has a mature and comprehensive climate change programme. Climate change considerations cascade through the ADB’s strategies and operations, starting from the organisation’s long-term strategy through to sector and country strategies, projects, and technical assistance.

Mr Dobias noted that in 2010 the ADB released an over-arching paper that will guide the organisation’s support for climate change action over the coming years. Focused Action: Priorities for Addressing Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific describes how the ADB intends to respond to the region’s five priority areas related to climate change: scaling up clean energy, encouraging sustainable transport and urban development, managing land use and forests for carbon sequestration, promoting climate-resilient development, and strengthening policies, governance and capacities. This action agenda will be supported through three modalities: mobilising and innovating to meet financing needs, generating and disseminating knowledge, and cultivating and fostering partnerships.

Mr Dobias outlined several possible future roles for the ADB specifically related to the issue of climate-induced migration. As action to address climate-induced migration must by definition include holistic responses to complex migration challenges, the ADB must partner agencies with expertise in migration and related fields, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM); as such, it could support, rather than lead, specific projects related to climate-induced migration. The ADB could also provide financial expertise and capacity by designing innovative financing options and by identifying and attracting funds. In addition to that, it could use its convening power to bring stakeholders together and to raise awareness and change attitudes about climate-induced migration. Furthermore, by initiating a dialogue with regional, national and sector leaders, the ADB can support policy development. It also has the capacity to support various existing and potential projects. Finally, it can help to gather and disseminate knowledge. According to Mr Dobias, the ADB can use its expertise and capacity to support downscaling efforts, and to disseminate good practices and case studies.

In his final remarks, Mr Dobias once again highlighted that the ADB has an important role to play in the efforts to tackle the negative effects of climate change, including climate-induced migration. According to him, the ADB would be glad to consider a range of partnerships with like-minded institutions that are striving to assist communities in becoming more climate-resilient, and thus better equip people of the region to avoid the prospect of having to move from their homes due to climate change impacts.

Click here for the presentation slide.



The various questions and comments raised at the end of the presentations highlighted the complexities related to addressing climate-induced migration. The point was made that environmental problems such as flooding are caused by a whole range of factors and not climate change alone. For instance, in the case of Jakarta, flooding can also be attributed to deforestation. Nevertheless, one should still pay close attention to climate change as it is an increasingly significant cause of environmental problems.

It was noted that the causes behind migration to large cities are quite complex, and both push and pull factors should be analysed. In the context of Jakarta (in response to Dr Nurlambang’s presentation), push factors include environmental and economic hardships in other parts of Indonesia; and pull factors include the relatively larger opportunities and possibilities that the city offers to its inhabitants. One of the major problems is the lack of an adequate transport infrastructure that makes living far from Jakarta’s centre a serious obstacle to benefiting from its advantages and opportunities.

Regarding the ADB’s external cooperation, it was observed that the ADB has arrangements with various other agencies and institutions. In the case of climate change, the ADB has a history of collaboration with institutions working on this issue, but such efforts had previously been based on different agendas. For instance, the ADB had in the past cooperated with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on matters related to labour issues, but now their collaboration touches upon other themes related to the area of social well-being.

The need to develop the right infrastructure and capacity was underlined. For instance, Dr Nurlambang mentioned the great disparity in numbers between the actual residents of Jakarta and those who have come from distant communities to work in the city. This demonstrates that Asian cities not only need better technical and infrastructural solutions, they also require much more knowledge on migration trajectories, so that the effects of projects and developments could be better addressed.

On the issue of securitisation, Prof. Lorraine Elliott noted how some sections of the security community have tended to frame climate-induced migration as a potential threat to political/territorial security. The reinforcement of such scenarios thus ignores critical issues related to vulnerability among the communities that are affected. In this regard, the use of a human security framework to talk about climate change and migration could be seen as a good antidote to the situation in which the security community comes to dominate the debates on climate change in order to serve its own agenda. From this perspective, human security is paradoxically a way of taking things back to politics as usual. It is a way of desecuritising the debate.

The need to change the discourse on climate change and migration was acknowledged. It was argued that this is something that the MacArthur Initiative has been trying to achieve. The audience for this research – including stakeholders in government circles – has been largely receptive.


Biographies of Speakers

Triarko Nurlambang is Director/Head of the Research Center for Applied Geography at the University of Indonesia, and a lecturer at the University’s Department of Geography. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the Department of Geography of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Science at the University of Indonesia in 1987. In 1992, he was conferred a diploma by the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. In 1994, he graduated with a Master of Arts in social study from Flinders University, Australia. Since 2006, he has been pursuing his doctorate in public policy at FISIP University, Indonesia.

Edsel E. Sajor is Associate Professor at the School of Environment, Resources and Development (SERD) at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Bangkok, where he focuses on urban environmental management. He has published various scholarly articles on governance and environment issues, land management and peri-urban studies in Southeast Asia. In the last five years, he has been involved in several research projects and PhD theses supervision exercises on climate change and adaptation in Southeast Asia, including internal migration issues. He is currently the Research Leader of the Thematic Group on Urban and Rural Quality of Life and Adaptation under the AIT research centre on Sustainable Development in the Context of Climate Change. Edsel's background is in development studies.

Robert Dobias has lived and worked in Asia for more than 30 years, beginning with a stint as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in 1978. During his first 16 years, he spent much of his time in rural Asia working for governments and national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to promote the integration of economic development with environmental conservation and social protection. Robert joined the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1994 as Environment Specialist. He was selected to head the ADB's newly established NGO Centre at the end of February 2001. From April 2004 to June 2005, he served as Director of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Social Sectors Division, then as Director of the Gender, Social Development and Civil Society Division in the ADB's Department of Regional and Sustainable Development. He currently heads the ADB’s Climate Change Programme as Senior Advisor.



Posted on: 27/5/2011 10:00:00 AM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters / Other NTS Issues

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