Field observations and empirical research

The Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios (EACH-FOR) project is a systematic attempt to detect the degree to which, and the pathways through which, environmental stressors affect migration.[1]

Today, environmental change including climate change presents a new threat to human security. Faced with an unconceivable scale of environmental change, migration may be an adjustment mechanism of first resort, or a survival mechanism of last resort. Migration may be an adaptation mechanism for those with the resources to move early and far enough away from danger. Or in extreme cases and for those with fewer means to move, migration may be an expression of failed adaptation. To explore these possibilities, the European Commission sponsored the Environmental Change and Forced Scenarios (EACH-FOR) project to assess the impact of environmental change on migration at the local, national, regional and international level. The project conducted fieldwork in 22 case study locations in six regions[2] of the world to address the following questions:

  1. Who is migrating away from situations of environmental degradation/change?
  2. Where are environmentally induced migrants coming from and where are they going to?
  3. Why have people migrated (i.e. what role has environmental degradation or change played)?
  4. How does environmental degradation interplay with other social, economic and political factors in decisions about migrating?
  5. What might prevent people from migrating when they are faced with environmental degradation? (i.e. what assistance was needed, what was lacking?)
  6. Why do some people remain in areas of environmental degradation/change while others migrate? (i.e. what are their coping/adaptation strategies and capacities?)
  7. How does environmentally induced migration occur? (e.g. choice of destination, networks used)
  8. What is the role of people’s perception of environmental degradation in triggering them to move?


Flooding and relocation in Mozambique

Extreme weather as a manifestation of climate change is increasingly problematic for the people of Mozambique. In 2001, 2007 and 2008 heavy rains caused flooding along the Zambezi River in central Mozambique. Flooding in 2007 was then exacerbated by the impact of Cyclone Favio; many people were made homeless. Droughts, coastal soil erosion and rising sea levels – which may be connected to climate change – also affect a large number of people in Mozambique. The river delta regions and the 2,700 km long coastline are at particularly high risk of inundation and erosion.

In Mozambique, environmental stressors (particularly flooding) contribute to migration and displacement. People are displaced during the flood emergency period; following recurring flooding events, people are relocated on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Along the Zambezi river valley, temporary mass displacement is taking on permanent characteristics. The field research did not detect large-scale international migration resulting from the Zambezi River flooding or significant rural-urban migration patterns for flood-affected groups. Instead, the research revealed that government-organised resettlement programs dominate the environmentally induced movement pattern for flood-affected areas.

Resettlement removes people from the physical danger of extreme floods but can lead to other environmental, social and economic difficulties. Subsistence farmers and fishers are moved away from fertile lands on riverbanks and to higher, drought-prone areas. Some resettled people attempt to return to work in their fields in low lying river areas periodically in order to maintain land ownership and their livelihoods as farmers. Resettlement often causes these people to lose their livelihoods, forcing relocated households to depend almost entirely on governmental and international aid. As extreme weather events continue to hit Mozambique, the Government of Mozambique will increasingly face decisions about how to manage people at risk and on the move due to environmental factors.

Complex flooding and displacement in Vietnam

Flooding is a driver of displacement in Vietnam. The country is also prone to water or water-related disasters. A World Bank study released in February 2007 noted that Vietnam is one of the countries which will be most severely impacted by potential sea-level rise.[3] Among the most affected areas will be the Mekong Delta, one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

The Mekong Delta, as the ‘rice bowl’ of the country, plays a crucial role in helping Vietnam meet its development goals. Flooding is a regular annual occurrence and is an integral part of the livelihoods of the population living in the area. Given the area’s fertility plus various factors relating to territorial expansion and defence, Vietnam has a history of government-initiated (re)settlement and spontaneous migration towards the delta. Currently, however, the Mekong Delta is witnessing a net outflow of migrants, due to a complex blend of economic, social, and environmental factors.

Fieldwork in the Mekong Delta indicates links between flooding and migration/displacement. A questionnaire sample collected from Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia indicated that half of the migrants decided to migrate in part because of environmental problems.

The findings illustrate some of the connections between flooding and population movement:

  • During the flooding season, people undertake seasonal labour migration and movement towards urban centres to bolster livelihoods.
  • People directly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood (usually rice farmers) are particularly vulnerable to environmentally induced migration. Successive flooding events can destroy crops and drive people to migrate in search of alternative livelihoods.
  • Migrants and experts noted that human trafficking into neighbouring areas was one (extreme) coping strategy used by families exposed to water-related stresses.
  • As part of a flood management and environmental sanitation strategy, the government is currently undertaking planned resettlement of people living in vulnerable zones along river banks.



Environmental factors contribute to migration in the cases observed, particularly through pressures on livelihoods. Environmental factors interact with multiple other drivers to influence migration. If environmental conditions change to the extent that certain regions experience systematic collapse in livelihood chains, then environmentally induced migration could affect a larger number of people than currently observed in initial fieldwork performed by the EACH-FOR project.

Environmentally induced migration occurs when ecological tipping points are exceeded - points in time when environmental pressures mount and so threaten human security that people begin to factor environmental conditions into their migration decisions. What is still unknown is how and to what degree mounting environmental pressures will affect and trigger migration. Neither is it known whether those who migrate first are relatively well off or those with the greatest direct dependence on the quality of the environment. Empirical research is needed to establish the degree to which migration is a coping mechanism and how migration helps households to secure desired standards of living.

Environmentally induced migration has profound policy relevance for human security. Climate-related stressors combined with ecosystem change (such as land degradation and water shortages) and rapid-onset events (such as flooding and extreme storms) already drive migration or prompt national governments to plan for the relocation and resettlement of affected populations. Government responses vary from giving incentives to mandating relocation, with mixed results. Resettlement programmes also have their costs and benefits: people are moved away from physical exposure to hazards, but may faced increased debt and loss of livelihoods after resettlement.


  • Build a strong scientific basis. Research is needed to accurately identify, measure, and characterize environmentally induced migrants.
  • Increase awareness. Knowledge about environmental degradation and climate change can arm governments, migrants, and potential migrants against human security crises. Awareness can help avoid maladaptation.
  • Improve legal frameworks at the regionaland multilateral level,. Policy and legal frameworks need to address environmentally induced migration.
  • Ensure adequate and appropriate humanitarian response to avoid escalating crises.
  • Strengthen institutions and policies. The magnitude of future environmentally induced migration depends in part on longer term environmental and development policies. Institutions must be strengthened so that they can appropriately manage migration linked to environmental change.[4]



Koko Warner (, Olivia Dun ( and Marc Stal ( work in the section on Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation at the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn, Germany (

[1] EACH-FOR is a two-year scoping project funded through the European Commission’s 6th Framework Programme: The UN University – Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) is one of seven partners in the project.

[2] See For methodology, see Afifi and Warner: The Impact of Environmental Degradation on Migration Flows across Countries Working Paper No. 5/2008. UNU-EHS, Bonn).

[3] Dasgupta S, Laplante B, Meisner C, Wheeler D and Jianping Y, The impact of sea level rise on developing countries: a comparative analysis, World Bank, February 2007:

[4] These recommendations follow those discussed in Renaud, Bogardi, Dun and Warner (2007), Control, Adapt or Flee? How to face Environmental Migration? InterSecTions No. 5/2007. UNU-EHS, Bonn.



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