The Impact of Urbanisation on Agricultural Communities.

How can governments prevent the negative migration of environmental refugees?

The world’s urban population is expected to double. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will reside in cities and what’s more, the global urbanisation trend is set to continue long-term with the United Nations predicting that this figure will rise further to 85% by 2100.

Whilst populations can increase naturally and regions can become reclassified, urbanisation mostly occurs as a result of rural-urban migration. Analysis over the last 30 years has shown a clear correlation between rural unemployment and this shift in settlement patterns.

According to the latest figures from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, (IOM) the number of global migrants totalled 272 million in 2019. Nearly two thirds were labour migrants. The latest figures from the UN show that migrants aren’t moving from country to country, as you might expect, but from rural to urban districts within their own region. Internal migration in some low-income countries, such as Nigeria, is estimated to account for 80% of the population. This negative migration of more people leaving the area than entering it has detrimental consequences for both regions.

Is urbanisation a problem?

Defined relatively simply as ‘the increasing share of the population living in large towns and cities’, urbanisation has resulted in the large-scale growth in the global economy with positive parallels being drawn between increasing GDP and the growth of our cities. Conversely, rapid urbanisation can create significant socio-economic issues, particularly in low-middle income countries where the pace of urban change exceeds social and political transformation.

The ‘push, pull effect’ is widely evident in Africa, Asia and South America where urbanisation has largely been an adaptive strategy with people migrating to seek better living conditions, increased employment prospects or simply to escape poverty. However, the migrants' perception of a better life can be unrealistic. Rapid urbanisation often results in a lack of essential services and pollution, urban poverty and under-nutrition. The cities aren’t ready for the influx of new residents seeking to capitalise upon the urban bias; with migrants believing that there is increased funding for the city’s infrastructure.

In low-middle income nations, rapid population growth means that it is not uncommon for half the city’s population to live in informal, squatter settlements, as is the case in Mumbai and Nairobi. These overcrowded, illegal neighbourhoods have inadequate provision of water, drainage, and sanitisation; there are no schools or healthcare facilities. They often appear in hazardous areas prone to flooding or landslides. Residents are at risk of eviction with little or no compensation if they are removed.

What are the implications of urbanisation for the farming industry?

Increased urbanisation reflects transformation in industry. In the last 40 years, the growth of the internet and technology has seen the increase of industry and the service sectors, resulting in a decline in primary industries.

During the same period, the effects of climate change have become increasingly apparent for agricultural communities; these environmental challenges are one of the biggest drivers for migration to cities. Urbanisation appears to be heavily influenced by climate variability in low-middle income nations, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa; a similar pattern recently emerged in SW China after a decade of extreme drought. Some predictions say that by 2050, there could be 200 million environmental refugees.

In East Africa, Common Market Protocol and abolition of work permits have led to the vast, free movement of labour. In a sub-region where the dominant sector is agriculture, there has been a significant impact on food security. High evaporation and precipitation unpredictability has led to severe drought in recent decades.

Yet large climatic, weather events such as drought, or conversely, floods, do not inevitably result in permanent rural-urban migration – the effects could be relatively short-term. The slow-onset climatic changes in an area, such as sea-level rise, desertification and soil salinity have a long-term impact on agricultural production as it is so dependent on water availability.

Millions of people in West and Central Africa depend on the Chad river basin but drought and over irrigation withdrawals have seen the lake’s volume decrease by 90% in the last 40 years. This led to harsher, more difficult living conditions; armed gangs have emerged and the overall regional decline has greatly contributed to negative migration.

Limited fresh irrigation water supplies can leave farmers with little choice but to irrigate with the only accessible water sources, which may be hard, saline or brackish. Over time, the toxic salt levels in the water build-up in the soils, suffocating crops, destroying the biodiversity and soil structure to leave unproductive farmland. Increased use of fertilizers only causes further degradation.

The failure to support agricultural communities and economies with successful strategies to prevent regional decline will drive further migration.

How can Governments and NGO’s prevent negative migration?

There is conclusive supporting evidence that legislative interventions that focus on improving employment opportunities and rural development reduces the rapid flow of urbanisation. Policies to prevent outward migration can be beneficial to rural communities, providing a boost to the economy, boost production of crops, which in turn, will reduce food insecurity and regional uncertainty for those with natural resources dependent livelihoods.

Opportunities for rural development.

Youth population (15-35) is expected to triple by 2050. In Africa, it is estimated that 380 million adults will enter the labour market by 2030; 220 of those will live in rural communities. Yet, successful rural development can occur as a positive result of urbanisation, reducing migration of younger adults who are most likely to leave in search of employment. As agriculture relies on demand from increasing urban areas, there are opportunities open to grow links with urban markets, particularly in food processing, packaging and convenience. These non-farm activities reduce rural decline; diversifying the economic base of larger villages.

In the drylands of the Senegal River Valley where precipitation changes and water extraction have contributed to migration, diaspora funding has been invested to promote community resilience and development. New mosques and schools have been built along the valley and money has been invested in sustainable land management practices. The joint project between IOM and the UN Convention was successful in encouraging further investments by the villagers.

Supporting agri-innovation.

Recognising the importance of the underlying rural prosperity and the future of farming technology, Governments, international agencies and NGO’s are providing financial support for emerging sustainable agricultural innovations. Where livelihoods are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, in-situ adaptation can be problematic as the struggling farmers cannot afford new equipment and agri-tech, despite it solving their problems, such as a high salinity water supply.

By providing a way for low-income farms to access affordable subscription-based technologies, including eco-friendly water treatment, farmers can use all available water sources without damaging their soil. This is just one-way to share best practice for sustainable agriculture, helping to build and retain a resilient farming industry. Water treatment technologies improve the quality of irrigation water, help keep soil healthy, restore biodiversity along with increasing farm productivity, profit and produce quality. They also subsequently reduce food insecurity.

Urban land-use policy.

Often cities originally located upon fertile territories but these once agricultural soils are being swallowed by urban sprawl. As the city expands, land prices rise too and many agricultural landowners sell for non-agricultural purposes, leaving less land available for agriculture. The increasing urban population demands more and more food but there are fewer producers and less productive soils.

Many cities have no land use strategy meaning there is little control over land use conversions. These Governments need to restrict the loss of agricultural land to this unregulated urban expansion.

In Kenya, where droughts have driven rapid urbanisation, the National Adaption Plan has sought to address the urban infrastructure that has developed on marginal lands, prone to flooding. Similarly, in Bangladesh, the state is actively encouraging people to move to climate-resilient, migrant-friendly urban centres.

Rural economies will continue to shape migration but the agriculture industry has a key role to play in its mitigation. The challenge is to address the drivers for rapid urbanisation. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change task force (UNFCC) recommends laws, policies and strategies that avert, minimise and address displacement. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Organisation for Migration have been appointed co-chair of the Global Migration Group to ensure that migration is safe, orderly and regular.

Taking a bottom up approach through a combination of research and society participation, policy makers can address local needs, informing top-down planning for durable solutions for both the rural and the urban communities.