1. Farmer in the slum
Ho Chi Minh City
If anyone in the world might be described as a climate migrant, it is Kim Phuong. For half his life, this compact, muscular 44-year-old man was a rice farmer, his days spent working his family’s paddies around a tranquil village in southern Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, where the confluence of the great river’s nine branches creates one of the most fertile places on Earth – and a place whose average elevation is less than a metre above sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
A decade ago, his family’s crops began to fail more frequently as destructive salt-water floods, longer dry seasons and an unprecedented series of droughts struck the Delta, slashing the family’s agricultural income and forcing them into debt. Phuong had to sell his land and, like hundreds of thousands of other farmers across the region, take to the road.
Today, he and his wife La Thi Chan Tha, 32, live most of the year on the other end of that road, in a one-room concrete apartment along a bustling single-lane street that runs along the grey density of Linh Trung 2 Export Processing Zone, a factory district on the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, the megalopolis still known to many residents by its historical name of Saigon. The three-by-four-metre room, whose front shutters open to the sidewalk, contains a sleeping loft, a parked motorcycle, a tiny kitchen and a barber’s chair facing a large mirror.
Phuong works most days at a nearby shoe factory, doing 10-hour shifts for $460 a month; Tha works in a garment factory, but she has been ill lately, so makes barely half as much. Since the shoe factory cut its workweek from seven days to five last year, he has spent his weekends making up lost income practising a trade he learned a few years ago, cutting hair for about $2.30 a head.
After spending $172 a month on rent and utilities, they try to send what they can back to their farming village, to support their now-landless families there, to cover his ailing mother’s hospital bills, and, if the money gets better and they’re able to save a bit, to build a house they can return to.
“Life has been really hard these past few years – we often could barely make enough to feed ourselves,” Phuong said as he slumped in his barber chair during a break between cuts one Sunday. He had just returned from his extended Lunar New Year visit to his seven-year-old son, who is cared for by his grandparents and other family members back in the village; Phuong, like most ex-farmers in the city, can’t afford to have his kid with him, and can only get time to visit once a year.
“I need to work every single day, because if I fail even one day, it will be hard to pay the bills. I only plan to live here for one or two more years, because the situation isn’t good enough for me to make enough money to bring the family over and settle permanently. So I’m going to save as much money as possible, and I’ll go back home and maybe build a house there, and try to make some sort of a living back home.”
That is the paradox faced by most of the former farmers here, and, according to a growing body of research, by most climate-affected poor people around the world: Far from provoking mass migration, climate change usually reduces their ability to migrate.
The farming, fishing and small-island populations that tend to be battered by the effects of climate change often need to move to less vulnerable places in order to survive – but those very climate effects make them the least likely populations to be able to do so, because the environmental damage destroys the incomes they would need to afford a permanent migration farther away than the next major town.
The prospect of millions of “climate refugees” crossing international borders, still a popular theme in some political and media accounts, has never been a plausible reality. International migration is a comparatively expensive option, usually partaken by the more successful individuals in poor countries, and migration scholars today generally agree that those most affected by climate change lack the resources to do it. There will only be climate refugees if wealthy countries agree to create special visa categories and, at their own expense, resettle people.
The climate-migration paradox is visible in heavily affected places such as southern Bangladesh and East Africa, but perhaps no more so than in the Mekong Delta. During the past decade, an estimated 1.1 million people moved out of the region, whose remaining population is around 17 million.
Whatever we call it, there certainly has been a lot of movement by people like Phuong during the past decade. The motorcycle-and-minibus route out of the Delta, across the Mekong and into Ho Chi Minh City has, in the past 14 years, become one of the world’s busiest pathways of rural-to-urban movement.
Indeed, almost all the people living in the hundreds of concrete cubes along Phuong’s narrow street, and the dozens of people who line up on the sidewalk for his haircuts on weekends, are former farmers, their livelihoods tied to a village in the Delta.
In fact, the entire sprawling factory-worker district is known locally as a “Mekong Delta hamlet,” one of scores of such districts in the city and its outskirts. It is hard to find a factory worker or construction-site labourer in southern Vietnam who didn’t come from the rice paddies, fishing villages or sugar-cane plantations of the Delta.
“There are a lot of people from my village coming here and living here like me – like 90 per cent of the working-age people there. The only ones staying back there are our grandparents and our kids. Those of us living in the city, we’re trying to stay afloat,” he said, “but there isn’t any way to stay permanently, so we all plan to move back some day.”
They aren’t able to become immigrants, or any kind of permanent migrants, because the environmental tragedies of their region and the resulting years of lost crops have made such major moves unaffordable. Rather, they’re best described as circular migrants – people who move back and forth, living and working on both ends of the road, probably for their entire lives. To understand how climate actually affects migration, we followed Phuong’s path back to the villages of the Delta.
2. A town called Saltwater
Nuoc Man Village
In Phuong’s sleepy, canal-side village, located a bumpy eight-hour motorcycle ride from his factory apartment, they use a popular Mekong Delta phrase to describe people like him: “gone to Binh Duong.”
Binh Duong is the heavily industrialized province immediately north of Ho Chi Minh City. Phuong and his wife happen to live and work on its southern border, but the phrase applies to anyone who has gone to any city, even a local one, for factory work, but who is too poor to leave for good. Those who have “gone to Binh Duong” are not considered emigrants; that term is saved for the residents of this village who’ve managed to move away permanently, or to another country. These actual emigrants tend to be from better-off families whose farm fortunes are, notably, unaffected by climate change.
The village, close to the western bank of the Mekong’s largest branch, is called Nuoc Man – which, in a dark irony, means “salt water,” though the name existed for centuries before the influx of rice-destroying sea water (a consequence of rising sea levels, but also caused by increasing erosion linked to the hydroelectric damming of the Mekong further north in Cambodia and China).
The effects of circular migration are visible across the region. Like most towns of the Mekong Delta, Nuoc Man is what is often known as a “hollow village.” That is, its population consists mostly of children and seniors, since most of its working-age adults have moved to the city for income, but the factories and construction sites don’t pay enough for them to afford accommodation for a full family or to bring their children over.
It creates a strange mood in these farm villages: Silver-haired elders are virtually the only people on the streets until mid-afternoon, when they pick the kids up from school. The children often spend their late evenings exchanging text messages with their faraway parents, whom they generally only see for three or four weeks in February, during the Lunar New Year holiday (known in Vietnam as Tet).
The streets are peppered with abandoned houses, their windows shuttered and front doors padlocked, and a few newly built houses with gleaming tiles and modern lighting, equally empty except when their factory-worker owners come visit for the Tet holiday. “At least 70 per cent of this village is undergoing the same thing as our family – they are in debt, they’ve lost their land, and they have gone to Binh Duong without their children,” says Ba Son, Phuong’s older brother, who is one of the few adults under 65 remaining in the village, because his construction skills allowed him to find work building houses paid for by ex-neighbours’ factory labour. “The remaining adults are too old to be accepted by any factories, so they take care of their grandchildren.”
The village is dominated by two houses of worship. One is a stunning Buddhist temple, a towering collection of bright red-and-gold structures adorned with dragons, snakes, lions and holy figures, one of the largest in the region. Its ceilings are bright-painted panels bearing the names of donors who have paid for the temple’s expansion. Some panels say “USA” – referring to the villagers who fled to the United States in the years after the Vietnam War, whose remittances from the other side of the world are one of the temple’s largest sources of income.
The other is a Protestant church – a far more humble structure, hard to distinguish from a large house, but whose congregation now accounts for a third of the village. As with the temple, almost all its congregants are seniors, but its tithings are too paltry to decorate the building or pay the minister. That minister happens to be Ba Son, Phuong’s construction-worker brother.
“People used to come to pray for their harvests and for their families to stay together. Now they come to pray for their children, to wish them safety and good fortune in the factory districts,” Son said as he strolled to the church with us. Likewise, the monks at the Buddhist temple say the aging congregation comes to earn good karma for their factory-working children and a better life for their grandchildren.
“We used to be proud to be farmers, we had our own land we could farm and our own incomes,” Son said. “But now, after so many lost crops, the debts keep piling up. The debts destroy the profits, and they have to sell their land piece by piece. And watching it dwindle over time, it’s heartbreaking. Then they have to go out and find work elsewhere. But they don’t have money to do that well, because they’re so far in debt.”
Twenty years ago, the only way to travel out of villages like Nuoc Man, or to bring crops to market in the city, was by water – by paddling or motoring a narrow riverboat along the Delta’s dense network of canals and rivers to the regional capital, a daylong trip. Going onward to larger cities for factory work was not really plausible – villagers here say that as recently as 2004, a trip to the city was something few would make during their lives.
It wasn’t environmental crises that started people migrating to the city, although the crop losses started to become more frequent around this time. Rather, it was the construction of roads and bridges in a region that had previously been very difficult to leave.
In 2005, Vietnam’s Communist government completed a set of two-lane roads connecting the major towns of the Mekong Delta to the regional capital of Can Tho, and a four-lane highway from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City. And in 2009, a modern bridge was built across the Mekong at Can Tho, turning a chaotic daylong journey into a five-hour drive.
It was only during the 2010s that Mekong Delta farmers started “going to Binh Duong” in large numbers. You can see the change in the floating wholesale produce markets along the Mekong, where scores of boats offer all manner of fruits, vegetables, fish and livestock to market vendors who pull up with their own boats at dawn. The big market in Can Tho now has half as many boats as it did before the pandemic – in large part, the remaining vendors say, because so many farmers have given up on the business and gone to Binh Duong.
And while many of these farmers had suffered declining revenues, often because of environmental damage, there were a lot of other reasons for people here to be getting out of farming, and out of rural life.
One big factor was the amount of land a farmer owned. After the 1975 victory by Hanoi’s Communist regime over the U.S.-backed South ended the Vietnam War, farms in the Delta had been collectivized. The rice farmers were lauded as heroes for rescuing the country from mass starvation in the postwar years, but they had no land or sales.
In 1993 that system ended, and the land was given to village families by local people’s councils. But many parents then divided their holdings among grown-up children, resulting in small plots that could only support a family if they grew three rice crops a year. That often resulted in soil exhaustion, and a couple of bad years would easily wipe out anyone with such small holdings.
Those who thrived were the ones who held onto larger holdings, or bought up the lands of failed farmers, or made the transition out of rice and into more lucrative forms of farming, such as orchard fruit or shrimp.
“We own all this land, so we’ve mostly been able to have a good life here,” said Tran Thi Hong, 42, as she waded through her sweeping expanse of paddies in thick socks, painstakingly weeding the crop with iron shears. While her long months of field labour earn her less than factory workers in the city, the living expenses are very low, and she enjoys the life.
Hong mostly had good harvests through the 2010s, which enabled her to cover the costs associated with putting her kids through secondary school and getting them into university in a distant city. In the past couple years, though, she’s lost a string of harvests to extreme weather events, rainfalls and droughts; she’s only delivered one of the last three crops to market.
Hong has told her three children that she will be the last in their family to grow rice, because she expects them all to go to university and get out of the Mekong Delta. “It’s been very difficult lately, a lot of my neighbours quit farming and went to the city this past year because the weather has become so unpredictable and we lost so many crops. I’ll keep doing it because I enjoy it, but it’s no future for my family.”
Neither the Vietnamese government nor the Delta’s agriculture industry have been passive in the face of extreme weather events, erosion and sea-level rises. In fact, the region has been visibly transformed by countless initiatives to mitigate or protect against the effects of climate change, shift people into less vulnerable forms of agriculture or create new sources of income for displaced farmers.
Most visibly, the hundreds of canals and tributary rivers of the region now have dams at their entry to the major branches of the Mekong, to prevent salt water from flooding in and destroying paddies. Bringing rice to market has thus become much more labour-intensive: Long boats carrying dozens of 50-kilogram sacks of rice pull up to the freshwater side of the dam, where men haul the sacks over the dam at high tide, cut them open, and pour their contents into hoppers on barges on the salt-water side.
But those initiatives sometimes have the opposite of their intended effect. “When people in the Mekong Delta are resettled to protect them from environmental damage to their livelihood and moved to better sources of living, they often use that as an opportunity to migrate again, further out of the region,” says Huynh Van Da, a faculty member at Can Tho University whose research specializes in the effects of climate change on agriculture and regional economies. He and his colleagues call this phenomenon “double displacement” – being rescued from environmental devastation and moved to less vulnerable lands nearby gives people the livelihoods and resources they need to migrate out of the region, often permanently.
That reflects a near-universal fact of migration: It’s not generally something done, in any part of the world, by the very poor and destitute. Rather, it is only when families and countries rise to a somewhat more prosperous and sustainable standard of living that permanent or longer-distance migration becomes a possibility. This is known as the “migration hump” – when countries reduce poverty through foreign aid or development, that prosperity causes people to begin emigrating internationally.
That’s clear in the Mekong Delta, Dr. Da observes: The families rescued from climate vulnerability are the ones able to migrate. In fact, he considers himself a product of this process – an academic climate migrant, of sorts.
He comes from Ca Mau, the southernmost of the Delta’s 12 provinces. The installation of sea water prevention dams caused his village to be divided between the inland rice farmers and the farmers on the salt-water side, who were paid by the Communist government to shift to shrimp farming – a more capital-intensive, but far more lucrative, form of agriculture. (And one that creates its own form of environmental damage.)
“Our family was originally on the rice side, and we could only manage one crop per year,” he remembers. “The other side they grow shrimp. One single shrimp can buy you 2 kg of rice. The people from our side began to look at the other side, and got jealous. They asked to grow shrimp, but the government would not allow it because this was meant to be the fresh-water side. So people would come in the nighttime to dig under the dam to allow the salinated water inside. The government tried to stop it, but by then the fields were flooded, so they allowed us to grow shrimp.”
Only then did his family become prosperous enough, and free enough from the uncertainties of climate change, to send its kids to the city long enough to earn advanced degrees and become members of faculty. The families on what is now the rice side of the dam have a far, far harder time imagining such a migration into middle-class life.
Yet Dr. Da does not see himself as a migrant, climate or otherwise. “Though I live in the city, I consider myself an urban worker with a farming background. Even me, I will return to the village when I get older. The change has been so rapid that none of us feel permanent here in Can Tho – it’s a much more pleasant life in the village, so even I expect to be back.”
3. Flooded up the value chain
Tan Phu village
The biggest change that’s taking place across the Mekong Delta, even more rapid and dramatic than the environmental effects, is the same transformation that swept across Europe and North America in the early 19th century and the rest of Asia in the late 20th century – a shift from survival-based peasant farming to more productive commercial agriculture.
It’s a way of farming that entails higher investments and usually produces considerably more food – and requires larger land holdings and far fewer people, casting populations out of rural lands and into the city. Here in southern Vietnam, the “urban transition,” as this agricultural change is known, was delayed for decades by the lack of road transportation, the effects of Communist central planning – and the losses caused by environmental devastation.
That’s apparent when we visit the sugar-cane farming village of Tan Phu, in the province of Hau Giang, whose land averages less than 50 centimetres above sea level, and is subsiding even as sea levels rise.
Many of the farmers, hit by salt-water flooding, have unloaded their land and sought work in the city; the village is full of padlocked houses and reluctant child-minding grandparents surviving on very low incomes.
When they get rid of their land, they most often do so by leasing it to Ngo Thi Oanh, the village matriarch. The soft-spoken 49-year-old welcomed us to the large house by the highway she shares with her husband and two daughters, and strolled through the sugar plantation she has worked by hand for three decades.
“We’re pretty much the only family around here who hasn’t had anyone go to Binh Duong, because we’ve learned how to manage the risk,” she said. “Growing sugar cane is a very risky business – if there is salt water or bad weather, your canes become too thin and you can’t sell them for anything.”
Oanh and her husband were hit by the salt floods, too, and watched the price fetched for their lower-quality sugar drop from 75 cents to 40 cents a kilogram. Their first response was to get more land: When farmers started departing after the devastating saline floods of 2021, they leased an additional 2.5 square kilometres of land from various villagers for six years for a total of $11,000, almost doubling their family’s three square kilometres.
But their more important investment was one that allowed them to profit even when their own crops were wiped out: They bought a large canal barge, and became middlemen, delivering scores of families’ harvests to the sugar factory in Can Tho. “We realized we had to create security for ourselves, and we did it using the barge – that way, even when we have a bad year, we are able to make money from those who manage to have good harvests.” They had moved up the value chain.
By investing in higher-capital agriculture, this former peasant family was able to escape the need to migrate to the factories. But they nevertheless hope to become an urban family, just in a more permanent way. “I don’t want my daughters growing up to be sugar-cane farmers,” Oanh said, as she demonstrated the back-breaking harvest work. “I don’t want them to be involved in such intensive labour – they need to get a real education, some skills and a better kind of job.”
This is a central problem with the concept of climate migration: Those families that can afford to make their rural livelihoods sustainable and climate-change-resistant are typically the only families that can afford to migrate in a permanent way – and many do both. It isn’t climate victims who escape these vulnerable regions; it’s the few who’ve managed to make themselves climate-resilient.
This fact places Oanh and her family at the centre of a two-decade international debate about the effects of climate change on human migration. The central question is whether the rise in atmospheric temperatures, sea levels and frequency of severe weather events will provoke waves of emigration, or reduce the ability of people to migrate; whether the effects of climate can be observed at all amidst the myriad reasons for families to migrate out of vulnerable areas.
“There has really been an emerging understanding that it’s not really possible to distinguish a climate migrant from other motives for migration, because climate effects on migration are part of a complex range of influences that result in mobility for some but increased immobility or even voluntary immobility for others,” said Ingrid Boas, an environmental-policy scholar at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. She was the lead author of a 2019 paper in the journal Nature, signed by 30 other climate scholars, warning academics not to buy into “climate migration myths” involving floods of migration.
Until recently, that debate tended to divide disciplines. Climate scientists simply assumed that the destruction of territory and livelihoods by climate change would cause populations to move to other countries and regions. Migration scholars, conscious of the economic effects that drive emigration, knew climate change would be impoverishing and would therefore tend to reduce levels of migration. There was little communication between the disciplines.
That divide resulted in, for example, claims by United Nations environmental agencies and climate scholars in the 2000s that there would be 50 million “climate refugees” by 2010, or claims by charities and journalists that there would eventually be as many as a billion such refugees – estimates largely made by counting the people whose livelihoods would be hurt by climate change, and assuming that they all would emigrate.
Migration scholars, on the other hand, had largely reached a consensus by 2011, when a set of major research initiatives, including the British-funded Foresight Report, which commissioned more than 80 studies in multiple disciplines, came to a broad agreement that climate change is likely to displace people locally but will have a negative effect on net migration, even resulting in people migrating into climate-hit regions (because of lower property costs in those regions).
In the past couple years, that divide has narrowed dramatically as climate scientists have also come to see environmental devastation as a hindrance to migration. A study published in 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change by a group of environmental scholars led by Hélène Benveniste at the Harvard Centre for the Environment, used a range of international data and economic models to conclude that “climate change induces decreases in emigration” among poor people.
“What we’re seeing,” Dr. Benveniste said in an interview, “is that climate change is affecting migration patterns, both directly and indirectly. What that means is that it affects both the incentives to move, but also the ability to move, which is a counterbalancing effect.” In all of Africa and most of central and southeast Asia, they found, climate change causes a sizable net reduction in the ability to migrate internationally.
4. The temple grannies
Soc Moi Village
One morning recently, four women in their 60s and 70s woke up shortly before dawn, carried their sleeping grandchildren to neighbours’ houses, picked up heavy plastic baskets and shopping bags full of cooking and cleaning supplies, donned their conical straw hats, and walked down into the tall grasses on the edge of the canal that runs through the town. From a hidden spot deep in the reeds, they pulled out a flat-bottomed canal boat, painted bright blue, and gracefully loaded themselves and their bags into the narrow vessel. Two of them pulled long paddles from under the seats and pushed off from the shore for an hourlong journey they had taken many times before. As the sun slowly rose over the thick trees along the canal, the sound of their laughter and giddy conversation echoed across the water.
“We don’t know any other way to travel,” said Huynh Thi Song, 64, the most voluble of the group. “None of us learned to drive or use a bicycle, because for most of our lives, the canal has been the only road.” Their destination was the bright red Buddhist temple in Nuoc Man, where they will spend the day performing basic chores – a privilege they have waited decades to enjoy.
“We consider it a blessing to work here, and we bring the blessing back to our town and to our grandchildren,” Song said. “We come in and cook and clean and sweep the floor for the monks, and make sure everything is clean, before heading home. And the next day it’s women from another village who get to come here.”
Such acts of selflessness are a sacrament in Buddhism, but the grandmothers also have a more worldly motive. They hope that by performing these tasks, they will transmit those blessings – karma – to their children in their factory cubes in the distant city.
“We were rice farmers when we were young,” said Dao Thi Uol, the oldest of the group, born in the early 1950s. They sold their patches of land a decade ago, because it wasn’t yielding enough rice to cover the cost, for reasons they didn’t understand. “So we decided that we would raise our kids to adulthood, send them to Binh Duong, and the kids would send money back home to help us raise the children. Through the entire village, everyone’s like that – landless. … The rich in the village are those who collected all the land and farm it.”
The temple days, twice a month, are a source of joy, a chance for old friends to get together and a break from the drudgery of raising small children for the second time in their lives. Their neighbours gladly take the children on those days, in the expectation that some of the blessings the grannies earn will accrue to them. It’s an entire economy of karma, spread through the villages and down the long, bumpy roads to the big city – a spiritual support system to balance an economy of migration that doesn’t quite work.
“We never thought we would be taking care of small children at this age,” Song said. “We thought our kids would be at home with their kids, even if all they could do was hired farm jobs. But you can see that it didn’t turn out that way. Thanks to the factories, at least our kids have something to do for a living, otherwise, they would be lost here. It’s a solution for their situation, at least for now – but I think they’ll have to find something different once we’re gone.”
Research by Nguyen Nhung in Ho Chi Minh City
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