According to the North American Drought Monitor, there are an estimated 33.1 million people living in drought areas throughout Mexico; that’s about 26% of the entire population. Without water, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay healthy, pursue education, water crops, feed livestock, and make money. Water scarcity induced by climate change impacts local economies, with costs of up to 6% of the nation's GDP. Additionally, not having enough water has been linked to increased social conflict and sometimes even domestic violence, which leads to people fleeing their country out of fear for themselves and their families.
The majority of our partner families – about 33% – are from Mexico. Most are seeking asylum due to persecution, criminal and political corruption, and/or a credible fear for their life. We can also assume they have experienced climatic hardships as well. As a board member of the ALIRP Direct Support Committee, I recently had the opportunity to ask our Mexican partners about their experiences with climate change and droughts. Here’s what they shared with me:
Droughts and Floods Create a Cascade of Issues
Although it may seem that droughts and floods are extreme opposites, they are connected. Researchers have defined a relationship between both hazards and air pollution. Air pollution may be responsible for retaining atmospheric moisture, effectively prolonging drought periods and inflicting heavier downpours, causing flooding. All of the Mexican partners I interviewed reported a high incidence of droughts. One partner explained, “With no rain or natural bodies of water nearby, we began having wildfire seasons, burning foliage and wildlife.” In contrast, another partner added, “Of course we felt the loss of our crops due to drought, but sometimes we would still experience the loss of our crops after flash foods – our crops would rot – it felt like we couldn’t win.” When crops supply grew scarce, livestock fatality increased, leaving rural Mexicans with very little variety in food choices and few nutrient-dense options, which are necessary to build a resilient immune system and protect against chronic disease. In this way, the effects of climate change such as drought and flash flooding can have a direct impact on a population’s health and wellbeing, and the health and well-being of Mexicans are negatively impacted by these events.
The Impacts of Climate Change are Felt Across Occupations
Research has shown that the release of Greenhouse Gases, or effectively, carbon dioxide, increases the temperature of the earth’s surface. The occurrence of heatwaves, however, has increased due to the downward change in atmospheric pressure, and these heatwaves are amplified and prolonged. Although farmers were highly impacted by climate change, the general consensus was that the heat waves were intolerable to people who worked in outdoor settings and facilities without proper ventilation or air conditioning. The inaccessibility of potable water made working outside even more dangerous due to the increased chance of experiencing heat-related illnesses like heat stroke. One partner complained, “the heat in Mexico almost felt twice as hot as the summers [in Alabama].”
The Underdevelopment of Infrastructure Impacts Access to Water and the Quality of Air
Infrastructure and development can have a significant impact on how climatic shifts and weather events are experienced. Lack of infrastructure can exacerbate issues like air pollution and water quality. For example, some partners recalled that the absence of paved roads coupled with severe drought events would decrease the quality of air as cars passed by or gusts of wind lifted the dirt. Additionally, the absence of centralized waste disposal services created respiratory health hazards: “There was litter everywhere, rotting food and animal carcasses would just make your eyes water” one partner reflected. “It's not like we wanted to live like this, we just didn't have a way to dispose of trash, so we burned and buried what we could. But some things just don't stay buried under dry dirt and burning trash had its own risks.” The release of extremely small solid particles, otherwise known as “particulate matter,” can cause cardiac and respiratory problems.
These health outcomes coupled with the inaccessibility of quality healthcare in rural settings propose disastrous consequences. One partner recounted a wildfire in 2012 that destroyed a significant portion of her village and killed two people, leaving friends and family devastated. “It was up to [the residents] to extinguish this fire because we had no fire department, and this water...we would purchase from a truck hauling potable water,” she added, “ it was awful.”
The effects of climate change on Mexican migration are complex and significant. As Greenhouse gases and global temperatures continue to rise, so do extreme weather events leading to crop failures, food insecurity, ambient air pollution, water scarcity, and eventually, the displacement of entire communities. Although currently being a victim of climate change is does not merit a claim for asylum, it may contribute to a migrant’s decision to flee Mexico, often to the United States. This situation calls for the prioritization of reducing Greenhouse Gases and the expansion of rural and urban infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate change and support vulnerable communities.
You can take action on this issue by becoming a volunteer with ALIRP's Direct Support Committee and helping displaced individuals right at home. If you feel moved to do so, you can also donate to ALIRP or just share this article. Lastly, stay informed on climate action by visiting the United Nations Climate Action webpage.
According to the UNHCR , Guatemala is the country with the tenth-highest number of applications for asylum worldwide; 10% of our partner families fall into this category. Countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are also partially encroached by the “Dry Corridor.” The “Dry Corridor” is a region in Central America that consists of a tropical dry forest. For most people, placing the words “tropical” and “dry” next to each other would sound counterintuitive due to the vibrant, biodiverse connotations that precede the word “tropical” and the harsh, barren illustration that the word “dry” conjures. Both assumptions are mostly true: the “Tropical Dry Forest” of Guatemala offers the greenery and biodiversity of a tropical forest in combination with the intermittent rain cycles of a desert.
These rain cycles are growing more and more unpredictable as the years progress, lengthening their dry seasons . For many Guatemalans, farming is the main–if not the only–way to secure food for themselves and their families. In fact, many families plan for their annual farming season, a season in which their crop yields (mainly beans and corn) must last them a full calendar year . During this farming season, rainfall is supposed to be consistent enough to cultivate a proper environment for the entire farming process, from seeding to harvest. However, because of the longer dry seasons and sudden floods, many families experience the loss of their crops with some families losing up to 75% of their harvest .
Changes seen in climate, weather, and regional temperature can have dramatic impacts on communities and crops. The United Nations World Food Program reports that in January 2019, 15% of people in the Dry Corridor said they had plans of migrating due to food insecurity . This number, however, is expected to grow as the effects of climate change continue to increase globally. In fact, the “Dry Corridor” makes up 45% of Guatemala and has grown 25-30% in the past decade .
Guatemala, in conjunction with governmental and non-governmental organizations like Catholic Relief Services and the United States Department of Agriculture, has worked hard to ensure Guatemalan families can expand their resilience threshold and avoid having to leave their home country due to climatic stressors . Unfortunately, the accepted definition for refugees and asylum seekers excludes families seeking to escape the Dry Corridor due to climate stressors . Advocates have pushed the UNHCR to expand the guidelines of what makes someone a “refugee” to include those displaced due to the effects of climate change.
Greenhouse gasses (GHG) are major drivers of global climate change and contribute to the dysregulation of natural weather patterns; a process actively intensifying the conditions of the Dry Corridor . It is imperative that the world’s highest GHG emitters – the United States, China, India, and the European Union – take serious steps toward meeting the goals outlined by the Paris Agreement . As of 2022, the previously mentioned nations are responsible for more than half of historical emissions of GHG and fall short of meeting the Paris Agreement . Finally, global authorities on migration must prepare for the estimated 200 million persons that will be displaced due to climate change by 2050 if a significant reduction of GHG emissions is not achieved .
As a professor of global health at UAB, I mentor a lot of students on projects and research that deal with international and global issues. In the past year, I’ve seen a surge of interest in climate refugees and climate change. Climate refugees (sometimes referred to as climate migrants) are people who are displaced and leave their home due to an environmental disaster like flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts. Climate refugee is not (yet) a legal term; it’s a scholarly term. Academics and advocates use this term to highlight the distinction from a refugee being forced to leave their home as a result of conflict versus a refugee being forced to leave their home because it was destroyed in an environmental or climate-related disaster.
Recently, I collaborated with one of our Master of Public Health Students, Kerry McCulloch, on a health needs assessment of migrant shelters at the US-Mexico border in Nogales (Sonora, Mexico). Kerry asked migrants why they had left their home and were seeking asylum in the US. The primary reasons for leaving were to escape violence, particularly criminal violence (67%) or armed conflict (58%). I also encouraged Kerry to include a few environmental reasons that people might leave their home based on research around climate refugees. A very small sub-sample emerged; just around 13% selected climate-related reasons, specifically floods, hurricanes, and landslides.
Although the numbers are small, they do highlight the fact that environmental and climate-related reasons are not distinct from conflict-related ones. Climate may be as much of a driver as political persecution is for many people seeking asylum. Climate may also be the tipping point for some people; “the last straw” so to speak. In Kerry’s study, we found some correlation and significance among these climate-related issues and family reunification, a
motivating factor for seeking asylum. In other words, some of the asylum seekers Kerry spoke with are the second wave of family members crossing the border. Maybe their spouse, sibling, or cousin had already crossed and started the legal process, and those waiting at the border plan to reunite their family while also leaving because the floods, hurricanes, and landslides are just getting to be too much.
I wanted to share this research note with ALIRP and their climate series because I really do think it’s complicated. The reasons people leave their home are complicated and, often, tragic.
We researchers need to do more to understand the role climate plays in people’s decision- making. And we, who advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, need to do more in describing the places where people come from. Where crime, corruption, and civil unrest persist, there may also be weak environmental infrastructure and regularly occurring natural disasters that make it difficult to stay and fight back or to wait it out. The distinction between conflict and disaster may not be so different as we sometimes may think it is.
Acknowledgements: ALIRP would like to thank Kerry McCulloch, MPH for sharing your photos with us and we would like to acknowledge the Sparkman Center for Global Health, Moses Sinkala Travel Scholarship which funded Kerry’s research.
Climate change intensifies regular weather seasons. For example, when hurricane season begins, we see more intense Category 5 hurricanes rather than the historical Category 2 level hurricanes. In areas that experience regular monsoons, there are more intense rains and flooding. This was the case for Pakistan last month.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 7.6 million people have been displaced by the recent floods brought on by climate change. During the evacuations of Afghans over the past year, Pakistan welcomed many Afghan refugees into their country. So, those affected by this climate disaster included Pakistani residents and refugees. One early report by the UNHCR estimates that 1.3 million Afghan refugees are in Pakistan and over 400,000 were in the districts most hard hit, and more recent reports estimate that the number is more likely to be twice that.
When we look at the global trends for displacement, a term we use to describe people who must leave their homes and are unsure if they can return, the numbers are staggering. More and more people are being displaced, internally, by climate disasters. The Global Report on Internal Displacement published that, in 2021, 23.7 million people were displaced due to climate-related disasters versus 14.4 million people displaced from conflict and violence. Often, we hope that people can return to their homes once the weather stabilizes and the flood recedes. There is a growing concern, however, that more and more people will find it harder to return home and rebuild, making them climate refugees.
Anytime people are forced to leave the safety of their homes, it is devastating. Recognizing the role climate plays in this is essential to all of us, globally.