Climate migration is about to explode. Cities will bear the brunt.

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Climate migration is about to explode. Cities will bear the brunt.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT — Over the next 30 years, climate change is likely to uproot hundreds of millions of people around the world from their homes.

Regardless of where they started, most of these climate refugees will end up in a city — drawn by the promise of more resources or a fresh start. “Most of this movement is actually internal to countries,” said Vittoria Zanuso, the executive director of a group called the Mayors Migration Council (MMC), in an interview here during the United Nations climate talks known as COP27. “It’s short-distance, and it’s rural to urban, which means that in one way or another, these people will move to, from or through cities.”

This will pose enormous challenges for urban areas across the world. Beyond the political and economic challenges of absorbing waves of refugees, cities are themselves likely to be dealing with climate impacts like heat waves, droughts or stronger storms. But Zanuso and the MMC want to see it as an opportunity to improve peoples’ lives and raise their standard of living by providing cities the funding needed to make that happen. “Our mayors really think that while climate is a crisis, migration doesn’t need to be,” she said.

At the recently ended U.N. climate talks, the MMC announced $1.2 million in funding for six African cities through its Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees (GCF). “The problem … is that the international finance system is not really designed for city governments to access it directly,” Zanuso said. “We need to find very nimble ways to channel private sector money to cities, so they can actually do very innovative things.”

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A climate influx

Most of the world’s population — 56 percent, according to the World Bank, or about 4.4 billion people — already lives in urban areas. That group includes 70 percent of the refugees, displaced persons and stateless individuals. People forced to leave home naturally gravitate toward areas of more opportunity — more jobs, more homes, more schools, more possibilities.

When climate impacts strike, those opportunities will draw people in. If agricultural land floods or disappears beneath rising seas, staying in devastated rural areas won’t make sense compared to moving to the city.

“We have cities like Freetown, in Sierra Leone, that may see their population increase by double in just 10 years because of climate,” Zanuso said. More than 10 million people will move to Mexican and Central American cities by 2050 solely due to climate — with additional migration driven by other factors, such as political or economic instability.

“Every day in my city, 2,000 people are coming,” said Atiqul Islam, the mayor of Dhaka North, sitting in the Bangladesh pavilion at COP27. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is divided up for administrative purposes; the whole metro area has upward of 20 million people, and Islam noted its extreme density, with around 49,000 people per square kilometer. The U.S.’s densest big city by far, New York, sits at a bit more than half that.

Islam told a story about a man he met earlier this year in one of the poorer parts of his city, who had arrived recently without his family. Until recently, the man had some coastal farmland and a happy life. “But due to the sea levels going up, my agricultural land is under the sea,” the man told the mayor. “So I don’t have anything, I lost everything.”

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Islam said this is not an uncommon refrain at this point in Bangladesh. The World Bank estimates that 13 million people could become climate migrants within the country’s borders by 2050; a third of its agricultural output could be lost.

Of course, Dhaka itself is facing increasing climate impacts; people who move to a city aren’t necessarily safe from all the changes the world is seeing now. Islam said heat has notably increased in his city, tropical cyclones cause extensive damage and dengue fever has started to spread more rapidly.

“We need to prepare now,” he said, noting that Bangladesh, the eighth-largest country by population, contributes less than half a percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. “We need action.”

Novel funding sources

That action requires money. Many developing countries have urged that half of the world’s climate finance dollars go toward adaptation measures of the sort required in changing and growing cities — such as building resilient housing, or planting trees and other green features that can lower heat extremes in urban areas. But such work has so far lagged far behind mitigation (say, building a solar power plant). The agreement that eventually emerged from COP27 in Egypt addressed the need to rapidly increase adaptation funding: The COP “urges developed country Parties to urgently and significantly scale up their provision of climate finance … for adaptation so as to respond to the needs of developing country Parties as part of a global effort.”

Zanuso said that the GCF, which announced the new awards in Egypt last week, specifically aims to bypass national governments and traditional nongovernmental organizations to get money to cities faster. The $1.2 million awarded comes from the Ikea Foundation and will go to Casablanca, Morocco; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; eThekwini (formerly Durban), South Africa; Hargeisa, Somaliland; Nairobi, Kenya; and the Nyamagabe District, Rwanda.

“For the cities, especially in Africa, the developing countries, we need more funding, because we can’t afford [this] on our own,” said Mxolisi Kaunda, the mayor of eThekwini, in an interview in Sharm el-Sheikh during COP27.

His city will use the funding to hire migrants and displaced people to work in a recycling program, as well as to help build an online portal to link people with services in the wake of climate-related catastrophes. Other recipients will create green jobs, renovate poor areas, encourage small businesses and even work to turn waste from a refugee camp into renewable energy.

“I’m the mayor who came in 2019, but I’ve been presiding over disasters,” Kaunda said. Repeated flooding has devastated his city, including an event earlier this year that Kaunda said killed more than 450 people; 79 are still unaccounted for. “When we rebuild, we need to rebuild better and smarter to ensure that the infrastructure will develop that resilience,” he added.

Zanuso said the MMC’s goal is, essentially, to get out of business with the cities they fund. The idea is that initial rounds of money be used to demonstrate a city’s capacity to innovate and spend wisely, so as to unlock other sources of funding.

“We have cities like Barranquilla in Colombia, which received from us $200,000, and now unlocked a $1 million grant from the Hilton Foundation,” she said. “A lot of cities that are graduating from this … and they’re continuing their projects. And they’re also using this experience as proof of concept, or a precedent of fiscal feasibility with other donors.”


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Islam told Grid that the priorities in Dhaka, like in other cities, include the creation of green jobs and low-cost but resilient, safe housing.

“Don’t forget, they’re also human,” he said. “We are also human.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.