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Tracking Migration To Cities as Earth's Climate Changes

Deborah Balk

Professor Deborah Balk's work was recently showcased in a special issue of CUNY's Salute to Scholars magazine that featured CUNY Faculty Dream Makers (see pages 11 and 12).

CUNY DEMOGRAPHER Deborah Balk starts with these givens: Climate change is happening, cities are growing and the urban poor in the poorest countries face the greatest risk. Since the risk is not equal everywhere, policies affecting urban growth and adaptation to climate change need to be guided by spatially specific information. Without such data, governments and development agencies cannot rationally decide where to build housing, route transportation or concede territory to natural forces.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded Balk a $200,000 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to explore a critical, but little-studied, piece of the puzzle – internal migration: Who moves to cities in the developing world from their countrysides or towns, and why? She was among 33 winners in 2016 chosen from nearly 200 nominations.

A professor at Baruch College, Balk also is associate director of the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, where core faculty from Baruch, Hunter and Queens Colleges, the CUNY School of Public Health and the CUNY Graduate Center work with other CUNY professors. Her specialty is spatial demography and the integration of earth and social science data and methods to address interdisciplinary policy questions.

Her ambitious project description envisions looking at "most developing countries" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and generating "estimates of migrants-at-risk and newly settled areas, by various types of climate-related risks (low elevation coastal zones, flood- or droughtprone areas) in destination cities or urban agglomerations, and, where possible, characterize the climate-related drivers of out-migration areas."

Migration's causes can be evident, as in the Maldives, 26 low-lying atolls that are fast disappearing beneath the rising Indian Ocean. But it is rarely so clear. Balk's approach combines census, survey and satellite data and, she says, is "broadscale, systematic, and repeatable across the globe."

One fast-growing urban area facing climate trouble is Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, which is near sea level but expanding on swampland. Many Indian cities confront both coastal flooding and drought. Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, should embrace regional planning or risk expanding on flood-prone land, she says, but that's easier said than done.

"Even in the U.S., we don't do regional planning well, especially across municipal, county and state lines. So how can we expect it in coastal West Africa, which will likely become one multinational urban agglomeration in 50 years, stretching from Lagos [Nigeria] through Benin, Togo, and Ghana to the Ivory Coast? Planning for that will be much harder, especially without an evidence base for policy-making." That's what her project is all about.