Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Svenja Enge

Svenja Enge

Svenja Enge is a master's student in “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security” at the United Nations University-EHS in cooperation with the University of Bonn. Since April 2017, she has been a student assistant for TransRe. She has a strong interest in natural hazards and especially in the interrelations between climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Her academic focus lies on the assessment of risk in hazard-prone areas, particularly in the light of global dynamics such as migration and climate change.

Sep 13th 2017 by Svenja Enge

Ecosystem Services as Conceptual Bridge between Environmental Degradation and Migration

Why framing migration in social-ecological system contexts might be a valuable line of thinking

Globally, social systems are closely interlinked with ecosystems and their various services, forming complex social-ecological systems (SES). The services provided by ecosystems range from resource supply, over regulation of natural dynamics, to cultural and social values. All types of ecosystem services are indispensable for SES’ livelihood security, health, and well-being. In recent years, the complex interdependencies within SES have progressively been incorporated in Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) research and policy implementation. Emerging concepts, such as Ecosystem-based Disaster Risk Reduction (Eco-DRR) or Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), account for these interrelations by promoting sustainable management, conservation, and restoration of ecosystems in order to increase SES’ resilience towards natural hazards and adverse impacts of climate change.

Migration research however, as Sakdapolrak et al. (2016) argue, remained widely isolated from these recent developments in the SES approach. The IOM project MECLEP (Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy) made one of the first attempts to explain how degraded ecosystems are related to migration and displacement through ecosystem services. Their infographic shows that as much as ecosystem services support livelihoods and human well-being, their depletion confronts societies with crucial deficiencies and pressures. Subsequent food, water or energy insecurity as well as economic, political or social instability can act as a migration driver.

Such scenarios turn out to be key mobility drivers: people facing the detrimental consequences of climate change might move to look for more security, to meet their basic needs and thus protect their own life, the life of their family members and of their community.” – MECLEP

Framing migration within the complex interrelations of SES offers a direct link between climate change-driven environmental degradation and migration as adaptation to these adverse impacts. This causal connection might help to trace migration incentives back to their root causes in environmental changes. But this specification of ecosystem impacts on social systems, highlighted by MECLEP, is not the only benefit that framing migration within the SES concept might provide.


Figure 1: “Ecosystem services. Relation to environmental change and impacts on migration.” by IOM/MECLEP (click to enlarge)

As discussed in more detail in the second volume of the TransRe Working Paper Series, the SES approach also prevents geo-deterministic simplification by recognizing the complexity and reciprocity of social-environmental relations. An example for this complexity is that ecosystem services are conceptualized as a social construct, which is generated by social-ecological interactions as opposed to understanding ecosystem services as resources internal to ecosystems.

The SES approach additionally accounts for the embeddedness of all processes within the SES in societal and environmental structures and constraints. This systemic approach stands against the unidirectional argumentation of geo-determinism. The SES concept thus offers a valuable line of thinking in understanding how migration can become a means of (climate) adaptation, adding a clear improvement to established, mostly one-sided concepts such as “climate refugees”.

In terms of the multi-directionality of the concept, Greiner et al. (2015) moreover state that the approach not only accounts for migration as a social adaptation process, but also provides a conceptual framework for the impacts of migration on environmental systems through mutual interaction and feedback loops between the social and the environmental sphere.

Even further, Sakdapolrak et al. (2016) explain that besides being a multifaceted social process, migration creates higher-level translocal interrelations across scales and spatial/conceptual borders of individual SES. These translocal interrelations build networks, which balance and support SES through flows of social or monetary remittances.

[…] [l]iterature on migration as adaptation has developed in remarkable isolation to current research on social-ecological resilience […] and ecosystem services […]. This is a missed opportunity – as we argue – since these concepts would provide a fruitful basis for operationalizing complex social and ecological interactions beyond one-sided notions of ecosystems as either “threat” or “resource”, while at the same time shedding light on linkages across scales and societal processes of adaptation and transformation.” - Sakdapolrak et al 2016: 86

The figure “Migration and the Social-Ecological Systems Concept” represents my suggestion on how migration could be framed in the SES concept. It builds up on the main statement of the MECLEP infographic that social insecurity and instability, as an outcome of changes in ecosystem service provision, can be a driver of migration, and adds some of the main thoughts I discussed in this blog post:


Figure 2: “Migration and the Social-Ecological Systems Concept” by Svenja Enge (click to enlarge)

1) Ecosystem services are not internal to the ecological system but a socio-ecological construct, generated by complex interactions between the social and the ecological sphere.

2) All processes within the SES (including the generation of migration drivers) are embedded in societal and environmental structures and constraints. These can determine ecosystem service allocation within the social system or impact the environmental functions and resources through slow or sudden environmental changes.

3) Migration as adaptation to changes in ecosystem service provision has various impacts on livelihood outcomes within the social sphere as well as on the environmental sphere, acting as outcome and driver of environmental change. This highlights the fact that SES are mutually interconnected.

4) Migration forms networks across spatial or conceptual borders of individual SES, creating flows of social or monetary remittances.

To sum up, migration can be seen as an essential adaptation strategy, responding to changes in ecosystem service provision in SES. Even further, it cannot only be an outcome, but is also a driver of environmental change and creates translocal networks in between individual SES.

I therefore argue that the SES approach might not only offer a fresh view on migration as adaptation and its causality. In my opinion, migration also represents a widely neglected, although exceptionally valuable extension, to the SES approach itself.


Greiner, C., Peth, S. A. and P. Sakdapolrak (2015): Deciphering migration in the age of climate change. Towards an understanding of translocal relations in social-ecological systems. TransRe Working Paper No. 2, Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Bonn. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.4402.9765

IOM (ed.)(n.d.): Environmental Migration Portal. MECLEP Infographics on Migration as Adaptation to Environmental and Climate Change. Available here.

Sakdapolrak, P., S. Naruchaikusol, K. Ober, S. A. Peth, L. Porst, T. Rockenbauch & V. Tolo (2016). Migration in a changing climate. Towards a translocal social resilience approach, Die Erde 147 (2), 81-94. Available here.

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