Climate Change, and the Links to Human Mobility Must be on the agenda for the Dominican Republic

Lake Enriquillo close to the border with Haiti, affected by rising water levels due to higher precipitation. © IOM/Susanne Melde 2014

By Susanne Melde

“More important than the discussions on the regularization plan of immigrants is the impact of climate change in the Dominican Republic,” said the then IOM Chief of Mission Cy Winter at the opening ceremony of a training of policymakers on 13 July 2015 in Santo Domingo.

The Caribbean island state is among the 10 most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world, according to the Germanwatch Climate Risk Index 2014 and 2015. This high exposure to natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and droughts as well as more gradual degradation of the environment, such as sea level rise and coastal and river erosion (Wooding and Morales, forthcoming) were the reasons the country was selected as a pilot country for a research project on the links between human mobility, the environment and climate change.

Despite the vulnerability to the effects of global warming and other climatic changes it is not yet making headlines as it should. “The public is not aware of how climate change is affecting the country. It should be a key topic in the country as it is not something that only concerns us from far away,” said one of the participants during the training workshop in July. The links to migration, in particular within the country, are even lesser known.

The Dominican Republic is first and foremost a country of emigration of Dominicans and accounts for important internal migration movements. According to the country’s National Statistics Office, almost one out of five persons (18.9%), in the cities and 12.4% of the population in the countryside, received money from a relative abroad in 2011. 

 In a forthcoming report from Wooding and Morales, based on Labour Force Survey data it was highlighted that in 2013, 10% of the population received remittances from a family member or friend residing elsewhere in the country ().

However, in the Dominican Republic, the term “migration” is considered as a synonym for “Haitian immigrants”, leaving out the most important movements - from and within the country. This stigmatization diverts attention from other migration issues.

Environmental degradation can push people to migrate, in particular, to urban areas. Over the past 15 years, the urbanization rate in the country increased by almost 20 percentage points from 61.7% in 2000 to 79% in 2015 (UN DESA, 2015). Internal migration probably plays an important role in this high increase.

A well-known case is the relocation of the community of Boca de Cachón which was relocated a few hundred meters due to the rising level of the Enriquillo lake (see picture). Many inhabitants lost their livestock. The community’s new location does not include pastures and is too far away from the local market, having a negative impact on income of the relocated families.

Other, mostly internal, migrants that moved to a part of the capital called Guaricano found better employment opportunities, but also a greater exposure to flooding and other damages through hurricanes. Besides these first preliminary results, the evidence base on how different forms of mobility, such as migration for work, education or family reasons or displacement and relocation after a natural disaster, can be a strategy to adapt to the impacts of climate change is still small. Results due in the next few months from a recent survey in the framework of the “Migration, environment and climate change: Evidence for policy” (MECLEP) project will shed light on these links.

A first step in basing policy on evidence is moving away from the stereotype that migration only concerns Haitians in the country. Mobility includes Dominicans moving to the cities and outside of the country in the search of better opportunities, family reunification or pursuing higher education, to name a few. Awareness raising campaigns are needed to counter these stereotypes.

The environment is one of the factors that influence the decision to migrate, together with political, socio-economic and demographic factors and individual characteristics. Human mobility does not only affect the environment, the reverse is also true. It is time to put (internal) migration as an adaptation strategy on the national climate change agenda. The time to act is now – in particular since States will come together in Paris at the end of the year to negotiate a new climate change agreement.

The Dominican Republic should be at the forefront.

The training workshop in the Dominican Republic was organized in the framework of the MECLEP project, financed by the European Union, with the financial support of the IOM Development Fund. The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the official position of the European Union or IOM.