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Urban Boom or Bust? Fragile Cities in Ethiopia Cope with Climate Migration

In Ethiopia, most of the population survives on small farms that rely on rain. As the slow-onset effects of climate change apply pressure on the northern highlands through droughts and other changes to rainfall patterns, more and more people are leaving the farm in search of urban opportunities.

Farms in the Ethiopian highlands are vulnerable to drought and irregular rainfall.   ©wollwerth/Envato
Farms in the Ethiopian highlands are vulnerable to drought and irregular rainfall. ©wollwerth/Envato

Ethiopia, one of the world’s most populous countries and the second-most-populous in Africa, is in the throes of a growing wave of internal migration. Numerous environmental, social, and economic factors have been pushing and pulling swaths of the population to move, usually from the countryside to the cities.

Large parts of rural Ethiopia, dominated by small subsistence farms, are threatened by a changing climate. Farms that survive only if rain falls at the right time of year are almost literally turning to dust during long droughts. When rain does come, it can be unpredictable and late. Poverty and persistent hardship in many of the rural highlands and some lowland areas are a driving force, pushing people to uproot. In a tale from time immemorial, inhabitants migrate in search of opportunity.

Dynamic migration throughout Ethiopia is contributing to the emergence of socioeconomic and cultural dichotomies that are jostling uncomfortably against one another in the cities: farmer and urbanite; the traditional and the modern; the multicultural and the monocultural.

The clash of these dichotomies creates a growing perception among many Ethiopians that life is simply better in the cities than it is in the countryside. A perhaps more astonishing belief that many hold is that migration to the east—to cities like Jigjiga, Harar, Diredawa, and Borena—is like migrating to the land of peace and opportunity, where one’s hard work and determination guarantee a prosperous and successful life. Though one may consider these beliefs to be naïve, such people, inspired by optimism, can often become the most industrious entrepreneurs, creating wealth for the cities in which they settle.

Compared to rural areas, the Somali regional state capital, Jigjiga, provides residents with better access to physical and social infrastructure. Education, health care, clean water, and sanitation services—essentials for a developing society—are available. Necessary financial services, including banks, microfinancing and credit, and ATMs for quick cash withdrawal, are available in the city.

City residents support their families in various ways. Some find work in the public or private sectors while others are dependent on the informal economic sector, like petty trading and service delivery.

Jigjiga is a hub of commercial activity and an investment destination for those in the Somali region. Booming business and conveniently located ports through Wuchale to Berbera make the city particularly attractive for international merchants focused on import and export activities. All of these factors—location, political importance, and even its long history on a major trade route—make Jigjiga a particularly attractive destination for migrants.

The growing boom in the construction, energy, services, transportation, and communication sectors throughout Ethiopia has particularly benefited Jigjiga. New infrastructure, buildings, and developments under construction have given residents greater opportunities and a sense of an upward trend in the city’s quality of life. The substantial investments being made in Jigjiga create an increase in demand for labor and human capital, which in turn attracts more migrants in search of stability and opportunity.

On the other hand, the rapid and unplanned flow of migrants and the increase in population pose challenges for the community, the migrant populations themselves, and the government. One of the impacts of increased migration is the overburdening of existing infrastructure. These days, basic services, such as access to electricity, pipeline water supplies, and residential houses and shelters, have not been able to keep up with the ever-increasing demand.

Delivery of such public services requires time over the medium to long term to properly plan and build infrastructure. Just allocating the necessary funds for massive government-funded public development needs considerable lead time. Infrastructure investments operate under the assumption that by the time construction is complete, the final product will be able to serve the community stably and effectively. However, sudden population bursts, such as those in Jigjiga and other booming Ethiopian cities, create shortages, shortfalls, and vulnerabilities in existing and new infrastructure. Therefore, these longer-term development projects are unable to fulfill the needs of the unexpectedly inflated population.

This induced shortage of public goods and resources degrades the quality of life that citizens expect from living in what should be a vibrant capital city. The gap between expectations and reality has had many impacts on the quality of life and the economic and social freedoms of the city’s residents. For example,

  • When a population bulge creates water scarcity, basic health and hygiene can no longer be guaranteed.

  • Women and girls suddenly have to work much harder to collect water from distant sources.

  • The overtaxing of the service sector causes prices to skyrocket.

  • Transportation services become overcrowded and taxis become very expensive.

In this environment, people once again experience cultural clashes. In spite of the difficulties and stressors on migrant communities, many of these new residents find their living conditions in the city to be good enough. Their perspective tends to remain positive and hopeful. However, to local urbanites, migrants are the source of most city problems. They see the massive influx of migrants as the direct cause of the overtaxed system of public benefits and limited access to public services. While some longtime city dwellers choose to view migrants in a positive light, all too many see the newcomers negatively.

The situation continues to change rapidly, and observers still have not been able to assess how well migrants are able to blend into local communities. These unknown factors may lead to further tensions between the two broad groups.

For now, some of the best ways for Jigjiga to safely and peacefully meet the needs of new residents is through organizing infrastructure investments and coordinating regional government security measures. Construction and small businesses are likely to be two of the most critical focal points for investment to bolster stability. Cooperation from the regional-level government is needed to monitor and to ensure security in the face of uncertainty. With local resources already stretched thin, assistance from whatever sources possible is essential.

Jigjiga is one example of many cities that will experience ramped-up migration due to climatic and other stressors now and into the foreseeable future. When people and communities have to navigate “new normals,” the resulting uneasy state of flux can be precarious for all sides to navigate. Avoiding vulnerability to climate-change and subsequent impacts on cities and communities’ development requires that leaders recognize new challenges their cities and regions are facing and carefully work to mitigate the worst of possible outcomes.


*Miftah Mohammed Kemal is an assistant professor of Political Science at Jigjiga University and a consultant of Social Science.


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