A workshop on climate, water, and migration

Last week I attended a workshop on the relationship between climate change, water insecurity, and migration. Water insecurity is sorely under-researched, and much of the action at the workshop was about how to integrate recent advances in measuring household water insecurity with existing knowledge on climate and migration.

Participants came from institutions in the US, Mexico, and England, and the pooled research experience of the group covered more than 20 countries and several disciplines. The HWISE project, which the workshop organisers are affiliated with, is currently carrying out comparative work on water access in some 30 sites around the world.

It became clear to me in our brainstorming sessions on the first day that the perspectives each of us took on the central issues of the workshop were strongly influenced by the world areas where we work. We all have a tendency to generalise from local experience, and climate change and migration look different in Central America compared to the Mediterranean, and in the Arctic compared to the Caribbean.

From my work in Ethiopia I’m aware that, in the short term, large infrastructure projects are doing more to displace people than climate change is. But everything is happening in the context of climate change. And everywhere, the slow drip of suffering due to unclean or unreliable water supplies is likely to be be a significant driver of migration.

Justin Stoler, convenor of the workshop in Miami

Justin Stoler, our host at the University of Miami, set the tone for the workshop, and demonstrated what gatherings of this kind ought to be like: open and relaxed (as opposed to the formal, even adversarial atmosphere of some conferences) but with enough structure to keep us focused.

Hovering over us all was the spectre of coronavirus. Some colleagues headed on afterwards to the Society for Medical Anthropology conference in Havana. But during the days we were together, news was filtering in of other meetings being cancelled. The day I flew back to the UK, the Trump administration announced the suspension of all travel to the US from Europe.

In the current climate of fear and closed borders, I’m reminded of what a privilege it is to travel around the world to do research and share ideas.

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