Warning message

The subscription service is currently unavailable. Please try again later.
Joe Ronzio/IWMI

Climate migration and social transformation: embracing complexity

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

Unpredictable rainfall patterns, droughts and floods linked to climate change are increasingly driving people to migrate in search of a better life. In West Africa, in addition to rural-urban migration, deteriorating landscapes are encouraging people to move to coastal countries where plantations, mining and cities offer the hope of greater opportunity and economy security.

Migration is a long-established economic strategy in the region. One in three West Africans live outside their place of birth. Although migration, including climate migration, has attracted considerable research and policy interest for many years, a new WLE policy brief argues that existing debates often overlook a crucial factor: social transformation.

Social, economic and political transformation

Migration is a driver of social transformation, generating long-term societal shifts on a deep structural level that impact individuals, communities and entire countries. Along with flows of people, migration creates a flow of ideas, remittances and social capital. Together, these alter the social, economic and political structures in both sending and receiving areas. However, as these changes occur in parallel and in combination with other societal trends, migration's role sometimes goes unnoticed.

Climate-induced migration is no exception. For example, a typical pattern is for young men to leave their villages while their wives, children and elderly relatives stay behind. This is leading to a rise in female-headed households in sending areas, while in receiving areas men are forced to adapt to, and integrate into, urban life.

There is consensus among regional policy makers and in the literature that climate change will increasingly drive migration in the future. However, it is impossible to disentangle environmental factors from the social, economic, political and demographic factors also driving migration. Moreover, the literature on climate-induced migration shows that the relationship between climate change and migration is non-linear and may be subject to various tipping points. Combined with the uncertainty of climate projections and the paucity of migration data in West Africa, this undermines efforts to develop long-term policy responses.

Unequal benefits of migration

Migration is increasingly seen as a positive adaptive strategy in response to the growing impacts of climate change, but it creates losers as well as winners. The benefits and downsides of migration are not equally distributed within countries, localities or even households.

Accelerating migratory flows are likely to lead to profound changes not only in demographic structures, but also in cultural factors such as gender norms and gender roles. Similarly, the flow of remittances not only constitutes a short-term transfer of resources, but also can lead to a reconfiguration of social support networks. When people migrate, they do not merely change their location, but often also acquire new ideas, attitudes and beliefs.

Researchers and policy makers discussing migration have often failed to consider these deep social transformations. Too often, cultural and social factors have been treated as static, unchangeable givens. This ignores the profound changes taking place within individuals, families and entire societies that, in turn, will influence future climate change vulnerabilities and shape future migration patterns, as well as broader development trajectories, across West Africa and other regions.

Questions for researchers and policy makers

Because the links between climate change, migration and social transformation are not sufficiently documented or mapped to develop an adequate framework for policy, research and investment, current policy frameworks on climate migration routinely lack an in-depth social transformation analysis.

This gap leaves policy makers unable to answer numerous questions that are critical to the future of West Africa. For example, how will urbanization affect the composition of households, household livelihood strategies and the roles of men and women within families and wider society? How will changes in society and culture affect conflict, which is already both a cause and consequence of migration in the region? And how should governments address the looming problem of supporting 'trapped populations' stranded in marginal rural areas?

At present, there are not even reliable data on how many people are migrating in the region overall, let alone on which segments of the population are moving between specific locations. Researchers and policy makers need to collaborate closely to collect better data on migratory flows. They should then use interdisciplinary approaches to explore how climate migration is driving social transformation and vice versa, as well as the impacts this will have on a range of issues, from agriculture and urbanization to gender roles and conflict.

To better understand these dynamics, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and partners, under the EU-funded Resilience Against Climate Change – Social Transformation Research and Policy Advocacy (REACH-STR) project, is conducting research into social transformation intersections with migration, climate resilience and gender. By 2025, the project aims to have helped local, regional and national decision makers in northern Ghana understand social transformation interventions that promote sustainable and inclusive rural development as well as climate change adaptation and mitigation practices. The project also expects that these decision makers will be able to apply and implement social transformation analysis in their developmental planning processes.


Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDGISFCDOSDC, Sida and others.