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Mass Migrations

Massive human migrations, caused partially or completely by climate change, are already happening around the globe and have been linked to the conflict and resulting mass migrations in Sudan and Syria, the sudden forced evacuations of low lying Pacific islands, and population dislocations due to desertification across Africa. That is just the start. Tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of climate refugees around the world will soon be trying to knock down border doors or slip past them. Although extraordinarily tragic and disruptive, this type of migration is a form of adaptation to climate change, much like other adaptations we have discussed in our Musings.

These mass migrations, due totally or in part to global warming, have already commenced and countries around the globe are starting to deal with them. To some degree, climate-driven mass migrations are driving the arrival of Central America migrants on the U.S. borders, and the African and Middle Eastern refugees crossing the Mediterranean today. Migrations are occurring within country borders, including right here on the U.S. West Coast where we are seeing both temporary and permanent migrations within and across state borders due to climate pressures. Indeed as we write this, many Californians are contemplating moving from the state, partially because of the ever-increasing fire dangers posed to property, health, and economic activity. There is nothing like danger popping up in your own backyard to get your immediate attention. If the effects of global warming have not figuratively or actually appeared on your own doorstep, be assured you won’t have to wait long - their approaching footsteps are loud and clear.

Perhaps of even greater global concern, however, are the massive transnational migrations of refugees -- exacerbated by global warming – already streaming across country borders. Both Europe and the US are now experiencing these externally driven populations flows, which will only intensify in the near future.

Until recently, most migration has been driven by causes other than environmental disaster or degradation due to climate change. In the not-too-distant future, though, climate change and its effects are overwhelming likely to become the root cause of much of this global dislocation. So far, we are only dealing with the tip of the iceberg - intended as a metaphor only - but as we write this we note that Greenland’s most recent massive glacier calving just resulted in a huge iceberg twice the size of Manhattan falling into the sea, and this, as it melts, will bring the ocean floods even closer in time and severity to our shores.

Along with the profound human tragedy, economic devastation and other implications of this mass migration -- including social upheaval, geopolitical conflict, shifting economic burdens, health and safety considerations, national defense, and family dislocation – the immense infrastructure consequences loom large. This is true for the U.S. as well as globally and those infrastructure implications are staggering.

We will not attempt to stray too far from the basic “infrastructure” focus of these Musings, but clearly all those other issues cannot be ignored and must also be addressed on a global basis in addition to the infrastructure related ones.

In some cases, the countries from which these migrants originate will attempt to stop or discourage them from leaving, while other countries will take a laissez-faire or even supportive attitude toward such emigration from their country, as it may alleviate numerous ancillary stresses on the resources of the country including food and water, general infrastructure, social support costs, and perceived national security threats. But whatever the source-nation’s attitude, the flow of these distressed peoples will continue to increase in coming decades by the tens of thousands if not millions.

Some countries will build barriers to keep these people in, others to keep them out. Many will have to deal with destroyed or badly damaged buildings, homes, and entire infrastructure systems which are no longer viable and the ensuing dramatic food shortages and other disasters due to abandonment of homesteads, agriculture and animals, loss of workers and some professionals. Conversely, the health, social and infrastructure issues connected with people unable to migrate or who simply stay for various reasons must be anticipated. Crowding into cities from the devastated countryside puts even more pressure on already packed environments and the cities’ already stressed infrastructure.

The destination countries receiving these migrants will increasingly seek methods to keep these people out, often for legitimate and understandable reasons. They may feel unable to absorb these masses for purely economic and social impact reasons. They may fear the cultural and political disruption of such a massive invasion. There are a host of reasons why they will decide to keep these migrants out, including stresses on infrastructure systems, and they will expend every effort to do so. Border walls, fences, motes, defensive systems of all types have been used for this purpose since ancient times and will continue to be used, and their effectiveness will be enhanced by modern technologies of various types to stem the flow of these displaced populations. Robotics, drones, facial recognition, sophisticated tracking devices, extensive data processing linked to tracking systems, artificial intelligence and the like will all be developed, enhanced and put to use, often imbedded in or supplementing physical infrastructure, in these endeavors.

Systems of all types will be developed, installed and operated first to detect movements of immigrants even before they depart their respective countries and to track and monitor them early on. There will need to be other supporting facilities developed and constructed like electricity generation, sewage disposal and the like, for the large number of people involved in operating and managing these nationwide systems as well as providing humanitarian and other support to the migrants. Factory fabrication and modular construction and means of immediately deploying and getting into operation such support systems on an emergency and permanent basis will require much innovation and provide many opportunities for the farsighted both to support the migrants on the one hand, and to help the affected countries on the other.

Countries with a more humanitarian bent or better suited to absorb migrants on a permanent or temporary basis must consider the infrastructure requirements to house and support migrants after they have entered and plan for infrastructure development and expansions of required infrastructure in those areas where they will be more permanently located. This is all inevitable and countries and international agencies must start to prepare all this now.

Some may think massive cross border waves of migration might not happen because people either cannot, or will be reluctant to, migrate and usually prefer to stay in their home country. Even assuming all this, problems will still exist within their borders which must be anticipated and incorporated into our larger planning. Whatever the ultimate outcome, we think it is both wise and critical that governments prepare for very large migrations both within countries -- due to sea level rise, wildfires, desertification, etc. -- and from external immigrations. This is already underway.

As we have noted, the issues related to mass human migration are much broader than just the infrastructure impacts, including financial, social, national security and humanitarian issues. On infrastructure, though, there will be temporary and permanent shelter needed for displaced individuals, and political responses locally, federally and globally. Like most adaptations or responses, the need for them can be foreseen if proper thinking and planning is done. Certainly, they and their implications should be addressed well in advance of the impacts wherever possible.

The U.S.’s total lack of preparation for the current COVID-19 pandemic, in spite of many advance warnings, vividly demonstrates the dangers, complexities and importance of the infrastructure, humanitarian and policy concerns resulting from these crises, and the need for agreement on both domestic and international protocols for handling these situations. The current pandemic also reminds us that these future climate-migration problems and their underlying causes will themselves be fertile grounds for the spread of future pandemics.

Like everything else connected with global warming, now is the time to plan for the needed adaptations and consequences of these unfolding challenges, including infrastructure and migration, and identifying the common characteristics of problems sure to impact numerous countries. Are the international agencies preparing and being supported with the required resources? This is not solely an international issue as individual countries will have to each develop their own plans for dealing directly with the migration issues they will face. But it would be ill-advised not to support global efforts to help plan and develop standards and programs which should be commonly addressed. Moreover, the most attractive solution may be to find ways to keep populations in their current host countries – where that is humane and possible. That requires a massive rethink of how “less impacted” and wealthier countries can help develop new responsive approaches in areas such as agricultural techniques and resiliency; infrastructure that helps mitigate climate impacts in host countries; financial support for relocating populations within their existing boarders; help with temporary housing and direct financial aid, and the like. If ever global cooperation was needed and could be instrumental in addressing the issues connected with global warming, it is in this multi-national challenge of migration and its interrelated complexities.

Infrastructure is meant to serve humanity both in good and bad circumstances. We must prepare for the human cost of these climate-driven migrations as well as the associated infrastructure requirements, and position now to address those needs. All this will require deep, knowledgeable consulting and advisory skills that transcend politics and address human needs; that provide financing and funding support; that produce innovative, cost effective design and construction capability; and that address mobilization and supply chain needs. Resiliency adaptation and planning for the broad range of infrastructure needs is essential -- including temporary standardized shelters and food and medical and supporting infrastructure facilities, along with more permanent installations for longer-term housing and potentially adaptations that facilitate the return, post disaster, of temporarily displaced people.

So along with immense hardship suffered by unfortunate migrants will come many infrastructure related needs and opportunities to address these vast humanitarian needs. We need to think all this through and be ready for the task. It is here now, and more is coming.

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