Climate and Mobility in the West African Sahel: Conceptualising the Local Dimensions of the Environment and Migration Nexus



Despite the theoretical and methodological critique of deterministic and linear explanations of migration under changing climatic conditions, many empirical case studies in this field remain deeply entrenched in static push-pull frameworks and tend to reproduce simplistic causal relationships. Drawing on results from an interdisciplinary research project in Mali and Senegal, the chapter presents a methodological approach that emanates from past analytical shortcomings. By adopting a local perspective on migration, we consider cultural norms, the migration history and people’s interpretations of weather and environmental changes. Moreover, we argue for a multilevel, multi-method research that seeks to separate the two research topics of migration and climate/environment; for example, by avoiding explicit questions about possible linkages. Contrasting results from ethnographic fieldwork concerning migration, climate and environment with ‘hard’ data on climate and vegetation allows us to become more susceptible for the social construction of alleged ‘facts’ such as droughts and land degradation as drivers for migration. We place a focus upon local meanings of weather and environment by considering how they are being assessed by the people, within a context of not only climatic but rather multiple changes.


  1. Adamo, S. B. (2008, August 18–29). Addressing environmentally induced population displacements: A delicate task. Background paper for the population-environment research network cyberseminar “environmentally induced population displacements”. Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  2. Ammassari, S., & Black, R. (2001). Harnessing the potential of migration and return to promote development—Applying concepts to West Africa (IOM migration research series, 5). Geneva: International Organisation for Migration (IOM).Google Scholar
  3. ANSD. (2007). Situation Economique et Sociale de la Région de Louga. Année 2006. Louga: Service Régional de la Statistique et de la Démographie de Louga. Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  4. ANSD. (2008, June). RGPH III – Résultats Définitifs du Troisième Recensement Général de la Population et de l’Habitat (RGPH III) – (2002). Rapport National de Présentation. Agence Nationale de la Statistique et de la Démographie, Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances. Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  5. Anyamba, A., & Tucker, C. J. (2005). Analysis of Sahelian vegetation dynamics using NOAA-AVHRR NDVI data from 1981–2003. Journal of Arid Environments, 63, 596–614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bakewell, O., & de Haas, H. (2007). African migrations: Continuities, discontinuities and recent transformations. In P. Chabal, U. Engel, & L. de Haan (Eds.), African alternatives (pp. 95–118). Leiden: Brill.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bates, D. C. (2002). Environmental refugees? Classifying human migrations caused by environmental change. Population and Environment, 23(5), 465–477.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bilsborrow, R. E. (2002). Migration, population change, and the rural environment. Environmental Change and Security Project Report, 8, 69–94.Google Scholar
  9. Black, R. (2001).Environmental refugees: Myth or reality? New issues in refugee research (Working Paper No. 34). Geneva: UNHCR.Google Scholar
  10. Bocquier, P., & Diarra, T. (1999). Migration internes et internationales. In P. Bocquier & T. Diarra (Eds.), Population et Société au Mali (pp. 63–74). Paris: L’Harmattan.Google Scholar
  11. Boko, M., Niang, I., Nyong, A., Vogel, C., Githeko, A., Medany, M., Osman-Elasha, B., Tabo, R., & Yanda, P. (2007). Africa. In IPCC [M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden, & C. E. Hanson] (Eds.), Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (pp. 433–467). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Büscher, M., & Urry, J. (2009). Mobile methods and the empirical. European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1), 99–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Castles, S. (2002). Environmental change and forced migration: Making sense of the debate. New issues in refugee research (Working Paper No. 70). Geneva: UNHCR.Google Scholar
  14. Castles, S. (2011). Concluding remarks on the climate change-migration nexus. In É. Piguet, A. Pécoud, & P. de Guchtenaire (Eds.), Migration and climate change (pp. 415–427). Paris/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press – Editions de l’UNESCO.Google Scholar
  15. De Haan, A., Brock, K., & Coulibaly, N. (2002). Migration, livelihoods and institutions: Contrasting patterns of migration in Mali. Journal of Development Studies, 5, 37–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. De Haas, H. (2007). The myth of invasion—Irregular migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union (Research report). Oxford: International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.Google Scholar
  17. Doevenspeck, M. (2005). Migration im ländlichen Benin—Sozialgeographische Untersuchungen an einer afrikanischen Frontier (Freiburger Studien zur Geographischen Entwicklungsforschung, 30). Saarbrücken: Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik.Google Scholar
  18. Doevenspeck, M. (2011). The thin line between choice and flight: Environment and migration in rural Benin. International Migration, 49(1), 50–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dougnon, I. (2007). Travail de Blanc, travail de Noir—La migration des paysans dogon vers l’Office du Niger et au Ghana (1910–1980). Paris/Amsterdam: Karthala/Sephis.Google Scholar
  20. DPS. (2004). Rapport de synthèse de la deuxième enquête Sénégalaise auprès des ménages (ESAM-II). Direction de la Prévision et de la Statistique (DPS), Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances. Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  21. El-Hinnawi, E. (1985). Environmental refugees. Nairobi: United Nations Environmental Programme.Google Scholar
  22. Findley, S. E. (1994). Does drought increase migration? A study of migration from rural Mali during the 1983–85 drought. International Migration Review, 28(3), 539–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gbetibouo, G. A. (2009). Understanding farmers’ perceptions and adaptations to climate change and variability, the case of the Limpopo Basin, South Africa. Washington/Addis Ababa/New Delhi: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRS), Environment and Production Technology Division.Google Scholar
  24. Gonzalez, P. (2001). Desertification and a shift of forest species in the West African Sahel. Climate Research, 17, 217–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gonzalez, P., Tucker, C. J., & Sy, H. (2012). Tree density and species decline in the African Sahel attributable to climate. Journal of Arid Environments, 78, 55–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Henry, S., Boyle, P., & Lambin, E. F. (2003). Modelling inter-provincial migration in Burkina Faso, West Africa: The role of socio- demographic and environmental factors. Applied Geography, 23, 115–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Herrmann, S. M., Anyamba, A., & Tucker, C. J. (2005). Recent trends in vegetation dynamics in the African Sahel and their relationship to climate. Global Environmental Change, 15, 394–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Huffman, G. J., Adler, R. F., Bolvin, D. T., Gu, G., Nelkin, E. J., Bowman, K. P., Hong, Y., Stocker, E. F., & Wolff, D. B. (2007). The TRMM multisatellite precipitation analysis (TMPA): Quasi-global, multiyear, combined-sensor precipitation estimates at fine scales. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 8, 38–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hulme, M. (2001). Climatic perspectives on Sahelian desiccation: 1973–1998. Global Environmental Change, 11, 19–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hulme, M. (2008). Geographical work at the boundaries of climate change. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33(1), 5–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. INSTAT. (2009). 4ème Recensement Général de la Population et de l’Habitat du Mali – R.G.P.H. 2009 – Résultats Provisoires. Bamako: Institut National de la Statistique – INSTAT, Bureau Central du Recensement – BCR.Google Scholar
  32. IOM. (2009). Climate change, environmental degradation and migration: Addressing vulnerabilities and harnessing opportunities. Geneva: International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Permanent Mission of Greece.Google Scholar
  33. Jónsson, G. (2010). The environmental factor in migration dynamics—A review of African case studies (Working Paper 21). Oxford: International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.Google Scholar
  34. Kandji, S. T., Verchot, L., & Mackensen, J. (2006). Climate change and variability in the Sahel region: Impacts and adaptation strategies in the agricultural sector. Gigiri/Nairobi: Word Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).Google Scholar
  35. Kilroy, A. (2008). How does the spatial configuration of a rapidly-growing city impact on urban insecurity? A case study of Bamako, Mali. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Urban Studies and Planning.Google Scholar
  36. Kniveton, D., Schmidt-Verkerk, K., Smith, C., & Black, R. (2008). Climate change and migration: Improving methodologies to estimate flows (IOM migration research series, 33). Geneva: International Organization for Migration (IOM).Google Scholar
  37. Maddison, D. (2007). The perception of and adaptation to climate change in Africa (Policy Research Working Papers, 4308). Washington, DC: The World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Massey, D. S., Axinn, W. G., & Ghimire, D. J. (2010). Environmental change and out-migration: Evidence from Nepal. Population and Environment, 32(2), 109–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McLeman, R., & Hunter, L. M. (2010). Migration in the context of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change: Insights from analogues. Climate Change, 1, 450–461.Google Scholar
  41. McLeman, R., & Smit, B. (2006). Migration as an adaptation to climate change. Climatic Change, 76(1–2), 31–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. MEA. (2009). Evaluation intégrée des écosystèmes: cas de la région de Mopti au Mali. Ministère de l’Environnement et de l’Assainissement (MEA), Direction Nationale de la Conservation de la Nature (DNCA). Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  43. Mengistu, D. K. (2011). Farmers’ perception and knowledge of climate change and their coping strategies to the related hazards: Case study from Adiha, Central Tigray, Ethiopia. Agricultural Sciences, 2(2), 138–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Merabet, O., & Gendreau, F. (2007). Les Questions Migratoires au Mali. Valeurs, Sens et Contresens. Version Finale. Paris: Civipool Conseil & Transtec Project Management.Google Scholar
  45. Mertz, O., Mbow, C., Reenberg, A., & Diouf, A. (2009). Farmers’ perceptions of climate change and agricultural adaptation strategies in rural Sahel. Environmental Management, 43, 804–816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mertz, O., Mbow, C., Nielsen, J. Ø., Maiga, A., Diallo, D., Reenberg, A., Diouf, A., Barbier, B., Moussa, I. B., Zorom, M., Ouattara, I., & Dabi, D. (2010). Climate factors play a limited role for past adaptation strategies in West Africa. Ecology and Society, 15(4), 25.Google Scholar
  47. Meze-Hausken, E. (2000). Migration caused by climate change: How vulnerable are people in dryland areas? A case study in Northern Ethiopia. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 5(4), 379–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Mitchell, T. D., & Jones, P. D. (2005). An improved method of constructing a database of monthly climate observations and associated high-resolution grids. International Journal of Climatology, 25, 693–712.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Mortreux, C., & Barnett, J. (2009). Climate change, migration and adaptation in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 19(1), 105–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. OECD. (2008). Mali. In African Development Bank (AfDB) & Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (Eds.), African economic outlook 2008 – Country statistics (pp. 415–428). Accessed 27 Nov 2013.
  51. Olsson, L., Eklundh, L., & Ardo, J. (2005). A recent greening of the Sahel–Trends, patterns and potential causes. Journal of Arid Environments, 63, 556–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Orlove, B. S., Broad, K., & Petty, A. M. (2004). Factors that influence the use of climate forecasts: Evidence from the 1997/98 El Niño event in Peru. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 85, 1–9.Google Scholar
  53. Peterson, N., & Broad, K. (2009). Climate and weather discourse in anthropology: From determinism to uncertain futures. In S. A. Crate & M. Nuttal (Eds.), Anthropology and climate change—From encounters to actions (pp. 70–86). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.Google Scholar
  54. Piguet, E. (2008). Climate and migration: A synthesis. In T. Afifi & J. Jäger (Eds.), Environment, forced migration & social vulnerability (pp. 73–86). Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.Google Scholar
  55. Piguet, E. (2010). Linking climate change, environmental degradation, and migration: A methodological overview. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(4), 517–524.Google Scholar
  56. Piguet, E., Pécoud, A., & De Guchteneire, P. (Eds.). (2011). Migration and climate change. Paris/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press – Editions de l’UNESCO.Google Scholar
  57. Renaud, F., Bogardi, J. J., Dun, O., & Warner, K. (2007). Control, adapt or flee. How to face environmental migration? (InterSecTions No. 5). Bonn: UNU-EHS.Google Scholar
  58. Roncoli, C. (2006). Ethnographic and participatory approaches to research on farmers’ responses to climate predictions. Climate Research, 33, 81–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Roncoli, C., Ingram, K., & Kirshen, P. (2002). Reading the rains: Local knowledge and rainfall forecasting among farmers of Burkina Faso. Society and Natural Resources, 15, 411–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Roncoli, C., Ingram, K., Kirshen, P., & Jost, C. (2003). Meteorological meanings: Understandings of seasonal rainfall forecasts by farmers of Burkina Faso. In S. Strauss & B. S. Orlove (Eds.), Weather, climate and culture (pp. 181–202). New York: Berg.Google Scholar
  61. Schneider, U., Becker, A., Finger, P., Meyer-Christoffer, A., Ziese, M., & Rudolf, B. (2014). GPCC’s new land surface precipitation climatology based on quality-controlled in situ data and its role in quantifying the global water cycle. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, 115, 15–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38, 207–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sieveking, N., & Fauser, M. (2009). Migrationsdynamiken und Entwicklung in Westafrika: Untersuchungen zur entwicklungspolitischen Bedeutung von Migration in und aus Ghana und Mali. Bericht für das Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (COMCAD Arbeitspapiere – Working papers, 68). Bielefeld: Centre on Migration, Citizenship and Development (COMCAD).Google Scholar
  64. Stabinsky, D. (2011). Climate change impacts on agriculture in Africa and the UNFCCC negotiations: Policy implications of recent scientific findings (Working paper). United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and African Climate Policy Centre. Accessed 25 Nov 2013.
  65. Tappan, G. G., Sall, M., Wood, E. C., & Cushing, M. (2004). Ecoregions and land cover trends in Senegal. Journal of Arid Environments, 59, 427–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  67. Van der Geest, K., Vrieling, A., & Dietz, T. (2010). Migration and environment in Ghana: A cross-district analysis of human mobility and vegetation dynamics. Environment and Urbanization, 22(1), 107–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Verne, J., & Doevenspeck, M. (2012). Bitte da bleiben! Sedentarismus als Konstante in der Migrationsforschung. In M. Steinbrink & M. Geiger (Eds.), Migration und Entwicklung aus geographischer Perspektive (pp. 61–94). Osnabrück: IMIS.Google Scholar
  69. Vincke, C., Diedhiou, I., & Grouzis, M. (2010). Long term dynamics and structure of woody vegetation in the Ferlo (Senegal). Journal of Arid Environments, 74(2), 268–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. West, C. T., Roncoli, C., & Ouattara, F. (2008). Local perceptions and regional climate trends on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso. Land Degradation and Development, 19, 289–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. WFP. (2006). Mali. Analyse de la Sécurité Alimentaire et de la Vulnérabilité. Strengthening Emergency Needs Assessment Capacity (SENAC). Bamako: World Food Programme & UNICEF.Google Scholar
  72. Yossi, H., & Diakité, C. H. (2008). Dynamique de l’occupation du sol et de la végétation en zone guinéenne nord et soudanienne du Mali: Etude de cas dans les régions de Sikasso et de Mopti. Bamako: Etude Sahel.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Geography, Institute of GeographyUniversity of BayreuthBayreuthGermany

Personalised recommendations