Delft, The Netherlands, 18 Dec 2016

International Migrants Day: The ‘story’ of water migration

On this International Migrants Day, Dr. Caroline Zickgraf of the recently launched Hugo Observatory, at the University of Liège, dedicated specifically to the study of environmental changes and migration, reflects on the linkages between water and migration.

The ‘story’ of water migration / Dr. Caroline Zickgraf

The story of ‘water migration’ did not begin with climate change, even if public attention to it has grown tremendously as the impacts of climate change begin to take hold.  Nomadic groups, herders, hunter-gatherers and fishing cultures have all to some extent ‘chased’ water and its accompanying bounties throughout the course of history.  Today, this story continues to evolve as global climate change, environmental degradation and mismanagement, and conflict threaten the quality and availability of water in many regions of the world.

Water-related sudden-onset disasters, such as floods, tsunamis and monsoons, are among the most recognizable and direct of the links between human migration and water. In 2015 alone, disasters caused by floods displaced an astounding 8.3 million people, with storms forcing another 6.3 million to flee their homes (GRID 2016). As disaster tends to have the greatest impacts on the world’s vulnerable, most of these displacements occurred in the developing world.  

Floods, tsunamis and monsoons are certainly not alone in contributing to contemporary (or historical) migration flows.  While we can to some extent count those displaced by water-related disasters, a far more difficult relationship to ascertain is the link between progressive environmental changes and their effect on relatively ‘voluntary’ migration flows.  Quantifying and managing water migration spurred by drought, desertification, sea-level rise or coastal erosion poses a challenge to researchers and policymakers alike.  For one, these migration flows are not necessarily permanent or international, making them difficult to capture. When potable water is not readily available, people may ‘commute’ to the nearest clean freshwater source.  The shrinking of Lake Chad, for example, has pushed children to cover ever-longer distances in order to source water for household consumption and other basic needs. As such households reach a tipping point, they may resort to longer-distance, more permanent migration in the future. 

Additionally, gradual environmental changes (water-based or otherwise) have both direct and indirect impacts on people’s residences and livelihoods that are inseparable from other traditional drivers of migration – the social, political, economic, and demographic. Coastal erosion in densely populated urban areas in Africa can diminish already scarce land resources, pushing booming populations into ever-smaller spaces and contributing to the out-migration and/or displacement. Perhaps most importantly, often water-related migration is obscured by its economic facade: recurrent drought or soil salinization combined with poor land and water management can diminish the sustainability of rural agricultural livelihoods, stimulating a farmer to leave his or her home in search of economic opportunity. Upon external or legal characterization, these people are deemed economic ­– not environmental ­– migrants.

No, the story of ‘water migration’ did not begin with climate change, but without appropriate action we are writing its most dangerous chapter. Climate change is only expected to exacerbate water scarcity and associated natural disasters that may then increase displacement and ‘push’ people out of their homes and traditional livelihoods. Of course this is not to say that we should seek to end water-related migration. Migration can act as an adaptation strategy, enabling escape from precarious environmental circumstance. We must thus seek to minimize the displacement impacts of water scarcity, poor quality and water-related disasters, while maximizing the choice to stay or to leave affected areas in humane conditions.  In order to do so, it is of the utmost importance that we recognize the crucial impact of water on the lives of millions of migrants around the world – however they may be labeled. 

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf
FNRS Post-doctoral Fellow
Deputy Director
The Hugo Observatory
Department of Geography, Faculty of Sciences
University of Liege

For more information on International Migrants Day visit