A recent study published by the Mayors Migration Council, entitled "Climate Migration in Mexican and Central American Cities", 2022, indicates that by 2050 urban centers in Mexico and Central America could receive, in the most pessimistic scenario, 10.5 million environmental migrants as a result of the effects of climate change in our region.
The aforementioned projection suggests that, in the absence of urban planning strategies and environmental and migration policies to manage climate variability resulting from human activity in a timely manner, countries such as Mexico could have up to 8 million climate migrants moving to urban centers ranging from Mexico City to medium-sized cities such as Monterrey and Guadalajara.
Another country in the region that would see a significant number of people migrating to its cities would be Honduras, which is estimated to have close to 742,500 climate migrants by 2050. In a worst-case scenario, the projected number could reach 380,000 in Tegucigalpa and 300,000 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second largest city. Unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, rural Honduras will have relatively high population growth. This suggests that some people may be trapped in remote, high-risk environments, unable to move elsewhere due to worsening weather conditions.
As for the rest of the countries in the region, the study points out that by the year mentioned (2050), Guatemala would reach about 187,000 environmental migrants in its main cities, El Salvador 173,000, Costa Rica 147,700 and Panama 127,200. Indeed, climate change would exacerbate ongoing demographic processes that are increasing the size of cities in the region.
While sustainable development pathways would reduce these worrying numbers, the fact remains that Mexico and Central America are highly susceptible to different climate impacts, both sudden and slow. From disruptions in food production, low water availability, to the direct impact of hurricanes, floods and heat waves, these could have significant repercussions on migration dynamics.
The main urban centers in the region, including Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Guatemala City, San Jose and Tegucigalpa, tend to be in mountainous areas far from the coast, which basically means that the larger cities in the region are less likely to be affected by sea level rise and enjoy more temperate climates than coastal areas.
However, as urban centers are attractive points of arrival for people, unsustainable and unplanned growth can trap untold numbers of vulnerable people in cycles of inequality and marginalization, coupled with the fact that many Latin American cities are already facing water shortage scenarios, as has been documented in countries such as Mexico and El Salvador, for example.
In this regard, municipal governments of all sizes in the region must prepare themselves and have policies and action plans in place to cope with probable population growth and, at the same time, increase their capacity to mitigate the effects of droughts, rising sea levels, rising temperatures and worsening natural disasters. In addition, it is important to take into account that urban growth tends to occur in peripheral areas that are currently neglected, unplanned and at high risk of suffering these climate impacts.
For this reason, the call to municipal governments in the region is to work on prevention and planning in the face of climate change and its effects on the human mobility of local populations, as well as the creation of opportunities to contribute to the inclusive and sustainable growth of host communities as agents of change in a green and just transition.
But cities cannot do it alone. International and national actors focused on inclusive climate action must include mayors and governments in policy decisions, increase financial investment to improve city capacities and services, as well as enact development and migration policy reforms that allow for fairer representation of cities in policy setting.
First, there is a need to invest in city governments to implement projects that focus on the inclusion of migrants and displaced people, while mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis on marginalized and fast-growing communities and at-risk urban areas.
As a second step, partnerships with municipal governments are needed to build research and scientific evidence on the issue of urbanization driven by climate events. Continued research should include localized future scenario modeling to better understand the quantitative scale of climate-related urbanization in other regions, but also qualitative data to better understand the profiles, motivations and vulnerabilities of climate migrants to add a human focus to future trends.
Finally, the research insists on the importance of involving municipal governments in national, regional and international policies, and in international policy deliberations on climate migration. It should be recalled that international agreements such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration highlight the importance of a greater understanding of climate change as a driver of human mobility, including commitments to address the causes and the adoption of policies to protect those affected.
The upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27), which will take place in November of this year in Egypt, presents a great opportunity for countries in the region to draw attention to the urgent need for action plans to achieve more sustainable cities, as well as to address other important initiatives such as energy efficiency, resilient and low-carbon buildings, waste, urban mobility and urban water management.