Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Anja Gänsbauer & Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

Anja Gänsbauer & Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

Anja Gänsbauer is a research associate and PhD candidate at the University of Vienna. She holds a degree in physical anthropology and received her Master’s in human ecology. In her research, she focuses on forced migration and natural disasters and is particularly interested in transdisciplinary methods. // Sumiya Bilegsaikhan is a graduate of Seoul National University with a background in environmental planning and biological sciences. She is interested environmental changes, its local experiences of and socio-economic impacts on municipal/national scales.

Aug 16th 2016 by Anja Gänsbauer & Sumiya Bilegsaikhan

Notes from the field: “Migrants at risk”: Dealing with extreme weather events while living in the city

Bangkok, a huge metropolis with ever-expanding peripheries, is the most desired destination for many Thai migrants. Its immense growth poses challenges for existing urban services and infrastructure that are being stretched to keep up with the incoming flow of migrants searching for a better life. This rapid urbanization additionally increases Bangkok’s already high vulnerability to climate change risks, such as sea level rise, subsidence, floods, and infectious diseases (e.g. dengue fever and malaria). While environmental changes in places of origin are indeed acknowledged as a contributing factor to migration decisions, the impact of urban environmental hazards on migrants’ lives has gained less attention.

“My hometown is very dry, there is no rain. I feel like I’m living in another world” (Metropolitan migrant, 2016).

Rural-urban migrants face a variety of new challenges when they decide to leave their homes for the city, including previously unknown environmental risks. At the same time, each migrant comes with his or her own “environmental knowledge” as well as with distinct social networks, a personal migration history, and economic circumstances, which can determine reactions to these environmental risks. The TransRe sub-project “migrants at risk” is interested in exploring the interplay of these factors, particularly when metropolitan migrants face urban natural disasters.

Our study site: Salaya, Nakhon Pathom

In 2011, a nation-wide natural disaster took a toll on Thailand. Massive floods, caused by excessive rainfall from powerful monsoons and successive tropical storms in addition to water mismanagement and subsequent dam breaches, inundated six million hectares of land and impacted the lives of about 13 million people. The Greater Bangkok Metropolitan area, a “bottleneck” for the flood water coming from the north, was highly impacted. But how did this confluence affect migrants in the city?

To study the interplay between population movement and urban environmental risks, we chose the study site of Salaya. Salaya, a sub-district of Phutthamonthon district in Nakhon Pathom province, is a popular destination for internal migrants and has been growing very fast. The geography of Salaya revolves around a train station that connects to Bangkok to the east and makes way to Southern Thailand to the west. One will find green landscapes of rice paddies to the north of the sub-district and a big Buddha park to the south. The campus of Mahidol University is at the the center of people's lives in this area. Bangkok and Salaya’s enormous expanding borders blur together at the edges. Due to its low-lying positioning and because of actions taken by authorities to protect central Bangkok, Salaya was severely inundated over several weeks in 2011.

Does translocality reduce vulnerability?

Being exposed to the same event does not necessarily produce similar experiences of it. How an event is experienced strongly depends on a variety of circumstances, such as environmental, social, political, economic, and cultural distinctions. The concept of vulnerability takes these elements into account when it tries to measure the ability of actors to respond to natural risks (Robert McLeman gives an easy-to-understand definition in his blog post).

In the case of migrants, there is another component which may affect vulnerability  –  translocality. Translocality and translocal relations are networks that go beyond administrative, physical borders - ties that are local and outside the “local” at the same time.

We think that translocality could help migrants respond to risks by increasing the capacity to cope, recover, and adapt to natural hazards. For reference, we assume in our project that translocal connectedness of metropolitan migrants can significantly influence their coping strategies to floods in a variety of ways:

  • The exposure of actors due to increased awareness and information about the upcoming stress from “outside”
  • The sensitivity of actors due to previous experiences in other places that face environmental risks
  • The impact of social networks on actors as they make coping decisions
  • The resilience of actors due to connectedness to other non-impacted places to be used as a resource

Notes from fieldwork

Four very intense weeks in Salaya are behind us, during which we prepared our fieldwork, acquainted ourselves with Thailand, met our two interpreters, looked for and learned stories of our research participants. Due to our limited timeframe, our interpreters were available for only nine days. And within these days, we conducted 21 in-depth interviews with metropolitan migrants that were affected by the floods of 2011 as well as key informants, who helped us learn about Salaya and the floods in the sub-district. We interviewed most of our participants spontaneously, which determined the places of the interviews: markets, coffee shops, the university, the police office, inside food stalls, on the street, and once in a taxi. We found participants who were great storytellers (at least until it got political), sensed the emotional side of this disaster, noticed the easy-going attitudes of life, heard a lot of different personal stories, and of course, were confronted with typical and sometimes unexpected challenges of transcultural research. And yet, almost all of the stories had one thing in common: that connectedness with places and communities of origin was crucial during the floods of 2011.

First time geographers

We are looking forward to the outcomes of this exploratory project, which so far truly has been a learning curve for both of us. Exploration implies the unknown and as first time geographers conducting exploratory fieldwork, we learned to embrace uncertainty and at times not being in complete control of the research flow.

So how have Thai migrants faced the floods of 2011? Find out from our follow-up blog post shortly!

Images by the authors