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  • Jillian Sprenger

Road to Colombo: Climate Migration in Sri Lanka

Climate change is affecting life everywhere on Earth, and in the coming years will continue to do so with increasing severity. Certain regions of the world are in fact already facing particularly adverse climatic events. Sri Lanka, a small South Asian country located in the Indian Ocean, is one such place. It is experiencing severe drought in its Dry Zone and frequent flooding in hilly regions (both of which have been worsening in recent years). As an island nation, it is also exposed to rising sea levels which threaten coastal towns and industries.

As a result of these threats, human mobility patterns in Sri Lanka are changing drastically. More frequent and severe climatic events such as floods and storms, as well as progressive degradation of the environment, are leading to a wave of migration. Commonly referred to as “climate migrants”, these individuals typically relocate domestically from rural regions to cities (in particular Colombo, the country’s commercial capital). Most climate migrants face intractable challenges in their day-to-day lives: their living situation is precarious, with most living in extremely poor conditions and relying on day labour jobs or other forms of informal employment.

Image 1 & 2. Farmers in Sri Lanka's Dry Zone depend on rice paddy farming for food and livelihoods. The image on the left shows a well-irrigated rise paddy field. This is what most of the fields in this region previously looked like. However, severe drought in recent years means that only a small subset of fields can now be irrigates. The image on the right shows the current state of most of rice paddies.

In studying complex and multifaceted global problems such as climate migration, it is critical to learn directly from those who are most affected and to amplify their voices, which are all too often ignored. In an effort to better understand the challenges facing Sri Lankan climate migrants, I travelled to the country to conduct interviews and to create a documentary film about their experiences. The insights shared by climate migrants and their families provide great nuance and context to the issue.

Most Sri Lankan climate migrants are men, many of whom have families to support back in their villages of origin. Many of these men speak of migration as a temporary adaptation measure. Those displaced by sudden climate disasters often attempt to rebuild and move back to their homes if possible. Those who migrate due to longer term loss of agricultural livelihood tend to do so seasonally, returning to their farms during the harvest season. Once in the city, climate migrants typically take up work as day labourers, construction workers, or drivers. Unfortunately, city life is highly precarious: several climate migrants describe a lack of appropriate housing, adequate toilet facilities, and affordable food. Many are forced to resort to begging in order to survive and to provide for their families at home. These conditions contribute to higher risk of illness and disease.

Image 3. Disanayaka (right) is a climate migrant. He is pictured with his daughter (left) and wife (background) at his family home in a rural village near Trincomalee. He spoke of the significant challenges he faced upon migration to Colombo, with a lack of housing, no toilet facilities, and suffering from Dengue Fever.

In addition to describing the physical challenges faced in their daily lives, the interviewees also speak of severe mental health issues. This is a significant (and often neglected) effect of climate migration and can affect climate migrants themselves as well as their families. Many interviewees emphasise the fact that the stress of poverty is just one factor contributing to mental health struggles. Another major contributor is the family separation that is often inherent to climate migration. Several women interviewees speak of the depression and anxiety they experience as a result of being separated from their husbands for long periods of time, and one child describes an inability to concentrate in school during his father’s absences.

It is clear from speaking with affected individuals that climate migration also has distinctly gendered effects. Several people describe the challenges specific to women, particularly for those who are left behind when male family members migrate. With the need to take on additional physical labour and work, as well as to shoulder the responsibility of heading the household in a traditionally patriarchal society, these women are often vulnerable to harassment or violence from men in the community. This is a major dilemma: while it is necessary for men to migrate to provide financial support and reduce the family’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, this concurrently increases women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence.

Image 4. Jayasiri (left) is the wife of a climate migrant. She and her son remained in their village when her husband migrated. She spoke of the enormous challenges (both emotional and physical) that she faces in his absence. Her son spoke of a feeling of loss and of extreme difficulty concentrating in school.

Many interviewees also emphasise that Sri Lanka has been able to manage harsh climatic conditions for centuries, and that it is only recently that resilience systems have begun to fail due to extreme climate change. This is especially relevant in the context of the country’s Dry Zone. The region’s hot, arid conditions were previously mitigated by a water tank cascade system built by Sri Lanka’s ancient kings. Essentially man-made lakes, these tanks allowed for the irrigation of rice paddy fields even in times of little rain. However, in recent years, in the midst of what is believed to be Sri Lanka’s worst drought in four decades, most of the tanks have almost completely dried up. This speaks to the severity of the situation: climate change is happening right now, it is happening extremely quickly, and it is causing enormous hardship particularly for those living in rural areas.

Individuals living in low- and middle-income countries contribute the least to the carbon emissions that drive climate change, yet they are the most vulnerable to its effects. This is true globally. However, it is particularly relevant in the Sri Lankan context. At the time of interviews, national data showed a rapidly growing economy and a country well on its way to becoming “upper-middle income”. However, the national aggregate data obscured the reality of a widening wealth gap and the fact that most of the population lives just above the national poverty line. These communities are extremely vulnerable and lack resilience to climatic shocks as well as to longer term climate change. Recognizing that the scale of this problem is vast (and is likely underestimated) is critical. As the poorest and most vulnerable individuals are forced to migrate due to climate change, the issues described above will become reality for a growing proportion of the population in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

Image 5. It is well-established that the poorest individuals are the most vulnerable to climate change. In a country like Sri Lanka, where most people live just above the national poverty line, an increasing number of people are being forced to migrate from rural regions to Colombo. Most migrants arrive at Colombo's Fort Train Station.

The world is entering a period of increasing and often extreme climatic volatility. The challenges facing Sri Lanka’s climate migrants are not unique; these issues are affecting vulnerable people globally. Addressing the needs of these communities is thus a highly pressing matter. Efforts to assist them should be concentrated on two fronts: increasing community resilience to climate change through economic diversification and the building of infrastructure, while also helping those who do migrate to secure housing and fair work. Wealthy countries should provide the financial resources needed for these efforts. The responsibility for driving climate change lies largely with these states, where carbon is emitted at levels far above the global average. They should thus also be responsible for helping those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is only with coordinated global effort that such challenges may be appropriately addressed.

Image 6. Climate migrants load truck in the Pettah neighbourhood of Colombo, a busy market area.


Jillian Sprenger [2021] is completing her MPhil in Environmental Policy. Her previous research has focused on global health and environmental issues in Myanmar, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Mexico.


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