Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Robert Stojanov & Ilan Kelman

Robert Stojanov & Ilan Kelman

Robert Stojanov is an assistant professor within the Geographical Migration Centre, Department of Social Geography and Regional Development, Faculty of Science at Charles University in Prague. He specializes in relationships among migration processes, environmental change and development, and effectiveness of development interventions. Ilan Kelman is a reader in risk, resilience, and global health at University College London, England. His research interests principally lie in disaster diplomacy and health diplomacy, island sustainability, and risk education.

Sep 20th 2016 by Robert Stojanov & Ilan Kelman

Typology of Environmentally-Induced Population Movement

Despite the topic of climate-induced migration being recently popularized in the media and academic venues, population movements due to natural resource changes or due to changes in the environment, including the climate, are common, historical phenomenon. As a truism that is often lost, the discourse of population movements and the environment is inseparably linked with a host of other socio-economic issues which are context-specific.

People do not often move for a single reason. And not all environmental degradation or environmental change leads to permanent population movement—or even the desire to move. The motivation to move involves a complex web of multiple factors that denote individual belief, pursuit, and dreams, or collective decisions for family. Politicians and the public wonder, in the context of current immigration flows to Europe, what is the role of environmental changes in causing migration. These questions amplify estimated numbers of tens or hundreds of millions of environmentally-induced migrants in the world who, many claim, will emerge during coming decades of climate change. In this way, we can ask: How many of these people need assistance? Who is responsible for their social and economic situation?

Literature dealing with environmentally-induced population movement offers various typologies, which often vary according to the authors’ scientific background. It usually includes a wide variety of drivers and motives for movement, covering different time and space scales.


In the text of our paper, we present three non-distinct categories, recognizing the large degree of overlap amongst them and the subjectivity usually required to assign a specific category. The limitations and ambiguities in these categories, reflecting the literature to a large degree, form the basis for further discussion on the importance of contexualizing when applying a typology to environmentally-induced population movement.

1. Environmental migrants

This category covers people who exercise their freedom of choice to move from their usual place of residence, if they have one, primarily due to environmental concerns or drivers. These people move because they perceive or experience environmental stimuli—such as environmental pollution, natural hazards, land degradation, or land use changes—as push factors which eventually lead them to choose to move. This movement is often proactive and can be viewed as a coping or adaptation strategy—or as a failure to cope or adapt leading them to move.

Examples within this category are urban-to-rural movement (suburbanization due to being pushed out of the city core) and migration because of increased air or noise pollution, particularly in industrial areas in developed countries. Other examples are migration flows from areas threatened by floods, droughts, or other natural hazards. For example, in some places in Central Europe, insurers will not cover properties due to the flood risk, so some people choose to move which can entail changing jobs and/or commuting far away.

Another example is the second wave of migration in Belarus and the Ukraine following the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. The first wave forced people out soon after the disaster, so they fled rather than choosing to move voluntarily (see the next category). The second wave was from 234,400 people living outside the 30 km security zone during the time of crisis who chose to move over the following years because of the disaster (see Figure 1). The number includes government-organized as well the non-organized migrants and almost 50 percent of them took place in the Ukraine. The majority of the migrants from Belarus now live in the big cities in Belarus, with only a minority having moved back.


Figure 1: Abandoned and ruined house – village in Belarus outside the Chernobyl security zone (photo by Robert Stojanov)

2. Environmental displacees

This category covers people who are forced to leave their usual place of residence because their lives and livelihoods are at serious risk as a result of adverse environmental processes, such as natural hazards, chemical releases, or severe land degradation. In contrast to environmental migrants, environmental displacees have little choice apart from moving. This category is close to the literature’s original meaning and definition of ‘environmental refugees’. Based on the time scale of their departure, environmental displacees can be divided into two sub-categories.

2a) Slow-onset environmental displacees

This sub-category refers to environmental displacees who have a relatively longer time to prepare for moving, but are still being forced to move. That might be because they have a longer experience with environmental degradation or with periodic hazards, with the eventual consequence that they feel forced to move. An example is migration due to slow changes in precipitation variability or repeated crop failures, perhaps due to creeping land degradation, such as around the Aral Sea. During the Soviet era, irrigation schemes were introduced around the Aral Sea so that cotton could be cultivated on an intensive and continuous basis. Poorly designed and badly managed, these irrigation schemes (mainly on the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers) led to the large-scale wastage of scarce water resources; the degradation of the land as a result of salinization; and contamination of water, land, and food due to large-scale use of chemicals. Around 270,000 people in the region were displaced.

In southwest Bangladesh, many Bangladeshis living in the Brahmaputra (Jamuna) River delta are slow-onset environmental displacees. Many left their families in search of employment in Dhaka or abroad as a part of their household survival strategy because the land can no longer support the entire family. The environmental changes which make the land no longer viable for supporting the entire family are partly linked to climate change impacts such as sea-level rise increasing both land salinization and water deficits, which is also seen in the Pacific Islands (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Nuku’alofa, Tonga: Will low-lying Pacific cities need to move? (photo by Ilan Kelman)

2b) Rapid-onset environmental displacees

At times, a sudden hazard forces people to evacuate from their homes at short notice, usually because the hazard is life-threatening. Over 25,000 people were evacuated from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster area immediately after the explosion, mainly those living within the 30-km security zone. Another 91,000 followed up to the end of 1986. They and their children are still not permitted to return to their original homes.

In the case of Japan’s tsunami disaster in 2011, combined with the large-scale evacuation forced by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, an estimated 170,000 people were evacuated from the prohibited access area out to 3 km and the on-alert area 3–20 km away. The earthquake and tsunami damaged or destroyed more than one million buildings, leading to a total of 470,000 people in need of evacuation. 154,000 of these evacuees were due to the nuclear diaster. As of March 2016, of the original 470,000 evacuees, 174,000 evacuees remain. The population of the region has dropped by more than 150,000 people in the past five years.

Other environmental displacees, such as from hurricanes (see Figure 3), might be away for shorter time periods. When a hurricane threatens US coasts, millions can evacuate for a few days. In the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 400,000 residents of New Orleans thought that their displacement would be similarly short-term, but the flooding of the city meant that about 130,000 have still not returned—either because they chose to settle elsewhere (and so they transition into category 1) or because they cannot come back to their ruined property (this category). The city’s population of 484,000 in 2005 plummeted to 230,000 immediately after the floods, then swung back somewhat, reaching 384,000 by 2014. This number includes 30,000 outsiders who have moved there, mostly young and white.


Figure 3: People near the evacuation center waiting for humanitarian assistance after Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh (photo by Robert Stojanov)

3. Development Displacees

Development displacees are intentionally relocated or resettled, not by their own choice, but due to a planned land use change, such as for economic or military development which changes the environment. This type of displacement includes people who are displaced due to river dams, irrigation canal construction, and transport infrastructure development amongst others.

It was estimated that hydro projects displaced around 40-80 million people between 1950 and 1990 around the world (WCD 2000). WCD (2000) estimated that large dams in India forced 16-38 million people to leave their hometowns permanently. China built over 85,000 dams and reservoirs from 1950 to 2008, of which 4,133 are large- or medium-scaled ones in Chinese terms. Construction of these large- or medium-scaled dams and reservoirs directly caused the displacement of some 19.3 million people, or 26.1 million people total given the natural population growth over the last six decades. More than 90 percent of these displaced reservoir settlers are rural residents. The Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River, as the world’s largest hydropower project, displaced over a 16-year period until 2008 between 1.25 million people (an official figure) and an estimated nearly two million (other sources). Many of them tried to live in temporary houses near their original homes (see Figure 4).


Figure 4: Temporary house of displacees in the Three Gorges Dam area in China (photo by Robert Stojanov)

Migration drivers and causes in these cases are clearly anthropogenic, somewhat differing from the previous categories where the migration is generally not intended, even if it is preventable. In the case of development displacees, there tends to be clear evidence of institutional responsibility, most frequently by governments or the private sector which intentionally change the environment.

Overlapping of the categories

Each of the above population groups has a time specification. Environmental migrants tend to be permanent, because they voluntarily move, likely taking some time in making a decision, although return or movement elsewhere is not precluded. Environmental displacees include different times scales: permanent and long-term displacees as well as temporary and circular displacees. Development displacees are usually permanent, especially when their original environment has been destroyed or they are not permitted to return. The time scale of movement varies according to the jurisdiction and development reason. Many conditionals such as ‘tend to’ and ‘usually’ are necessary in these descriptions, indicating a blurring and overlapping of categories—a continuum across motivations and time scales rather than being absolute, definitive, and universal categories.

Environmentally-induced population movement includes climate change as one example of environmental change. The notion of climate change-related population movement has been gaining momentum in recent years, especially with regards to low-lying islands. Yet water security and food security might be more likely to drive population movement.

Any natural hazard might trigger a migration decision, but that does not mean that all the displacees move the day after the hazard strikes. It can be months or years for a decision to be made and for the resources to be available, before the final step of leaving. It might not be entirely clear whether the population moving is migrants (because they make an active choice to leave when they could stay), are displacees (because they have no choice but to leave), or are in between (because they feel that their best choice is to leave or they are uncertain but use the hazard as an excuse to leave).


The environment-migration nexus is accepted as being an important issue for international and national agendas. In recent years, the debate regarding environmentally-induced population movement has been dominated by anthropogenic climate change as a driver. However, various motivations, drivers, time characteristics, and space characteristics included in our typology can help to ensure that one factor, such as climate change impacts, does not dominate the discussion.

We do not come to a single, specific, and universal conclusion. We do suggest that our typology should be used as an indicator for political decision-making. Examples are compensation for displaced populations, humanitarian assistance, and/or development aid. The typology can also be viewed as a motivator to continue seeking empirical evidence to confirm or refute future expectations in order to provide populations influenced by environmental change with the help that they need and often request.


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