Record numbers of people are migrating, primarily in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to a recent study, 15 percent of the population of those three countries – over five million people – are making concrete plans to migrate north.[1] What’s causing them to flee and why now? This Central American crisis illustrates the direct connection between climate change, migration and health. And it’s a story that is playing out across the globe.

The Dire Consequences of Drought

In February 2014, I was working for another organization in Guatemala. As part of my work, I traveled around the country visiting different communities. Some of the communities I visited were in an area of the country called the “Dry Corridor” – a region that faces severe food and water shortages because of drought. It was in one of these communities that I met a young girl whose face I’ll never forget. At three years old, she was the same age as my daughter at home in Guatemala City. Whereas my daughter was well-fed and healthy, this girl was severely malnourished. She was going blind. Her hair was falling out. She could barely walk and was only a fraction of the height of my daughter.

Unfortunately, this young girl’s poor health was not uncommon in the communities I visited. Everywhere I went, people shared with me how drought was affecting their livelihoods and their health. Droughts were no longer seasonal like they had been before. They were prolonged and indefinite. Families were being faced with an impossible choice – move their families to look for work or stay home and risk starvation.

Compounding Climate Change Disasters

Fast forward seven years and very little has changed for families living in Central America. Drought has persisted nearly every year since then, forcing people to choose between health and home.

To make matters worse, November 2020 proved to be a record-breaking hurricane season. Within the span of two weeks, two Category 5 hurricanes hit Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. It was the first time on record that multiple Category 5 storms made landfall after November 1.

The map on the left shows areas of Guatemala impacted by hurricanes in 2020. The darker the color, the more people impacted. The map on the right shows communities facing food crises and high levels of malnutrition. The darker the color, the more severe the crisis. Together, these maps show how layered crises are worsening health outcomes and increasing the potential for migration out of the region.

Suddenly communities that had been combating drought for nearly a decade were overrun by water. Rivers were overflowing and bridges were collapsing. Soil was so saturated that mudslides were engulfing entire communities. Crops that were only weeks away from being harvested were gone in an instant.

A washed out road near the village of Campur after Hurricane Eta made landfall in Guatemala in 2020.
Flooding in Campur Village, Guatemala after Hurricane Eta.

After the storms, people in communities where previously hardly anyone would migrate had to begin making hard decisions. In one community where Medical Teams responded to the hurricane, where only one person is known to have migrated to the U.S. in the prior year, at least a few dozen have already left in 2021.

The Effect of Climate Change on Health

One of the main reasons people cite for migrating is looking for economic opportunity. Without the ability to make an income at home, parents can’t provide the most basic necessities for their families. Things like food and medicine. The consequences of this are dire, just as I saw in the little girl I met. Sicknesses that might otherwise be easily treated become life-threatening. When crop yields decrease because of drought or a storm hits and wipes out everything, suddenly the money needed to get a child’s medicine for pneumonia is gone. The cost of the bus fare to get a pregnant woman to a clinic is gone. People are left without critical health care.

It’s not only the people who stay home who struggle with health, but people who migrate as well. Many migrants and refugees who are forced from their homes by climate-related crises face the same lack of access to health care once they arrive in a new location.

Meeting the Need for Health Care

As a humanitarian health organization focused on serving displaced populations, this is where Medical Teams meets the need. We are working to ensure that people who have been affected by crisis have access to life-saving care. Whether it’s a family who has been forced to move five miles due to a mudslide or people displaced 500 miles due to conflict. We are there to break down the barriers to health they face as they navigate a new world.

Sometimes this means setting up clinics to treat diseases like malaria and pneumonia. Other times, it means stocking pharmacies with medication. Helping people in crisis also looks like setting up networks of Community Health Workers to share messages about health and hygiene and connect people to care. These interventions for displaced people are more important than ever as COVID-19 spreads.

Medical Teams staff carry hygiene kits to villages in Guatemala cut off by landslides after Hurricane Eta.
A child is weighed by Medical Teams staff at a shelter where families stayed after losing their homes to Hurricane Eta.
Medical Teams staff educate families staying in a shelter after Hurricane Eta about COVID-19 prevention.

Although the effects of climate change on migration and health are serious and daunting, there are steps we can take now to make a difference. There are people we can show up for whose lives are being torn apart. We can help provide life-saving medical care and show them love and compassion. We can remind them that they are valued and not forgotten.


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Michael Chapman
Senior Director, Global Programs