Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Vally Koubi

Vally Koubi

Vally Koubi is a professor (titular) at the Center for Comparative and International Studies (CIS) at ETH Zurich, and a professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research interests are in environmental politics, including climatic changes, migration, and conflict. http://www.ib.ethz.ch/people/koubi.html

May 4th 2016 by Vally Koubi

Short- and Long-Term Environmental Changes and Migration in Vietnam

The question concerning the impact of climatic changes on migration flows has attracted growing attention in the public debate. Political leaders, various international organizations, and scientists often argue that climate change will lead to major population shifts as climate change causes extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts. It is estimated that 200 million people will need to find a new home - temporarily or permanently - in their own country or abroad by 2050. However, such figures should be interpreted with some caution because a) they are based on estimates on the number of people to be exposed to extreme environmental changes and hence it is uncertain whether those affected will actually migrate; and b) these estimates do not take into account the possibility that people might adapt to the changing environmental conditions.

Consequently, a better understanding of how climate change affects migration is crucial, especially if adaptation measures could, to some extent, mitigate the negative effects of climate change. In particular, given the limited resources available to combat the effects of climate change, it is essential to know whether these resources are better invested primarily in the mitigation of climate change or rather in adaptation measures.

In a recent published paper in World Development, we seek to address these issues. In the context of a Swiss Network for International Studies (SNIS)-funded project, we surveyed 1200 non-migrants and migrants in Vietnam on their perception of climate-induced environmental changes and the consequences thereof on their own living conditions. Our project is one of the few research endeavors which systematically collects information both about people who have left their homes and people who have chosen to stay at their native place.

Among other reasons, this distinction is crucial since potential reasons for environmentally induced migration can only be teased out through the comparison between migrants and non-migrants.

Environmentally induced migration can only be teased through the comparison between migrants and non-migrants."

Do climatic changes effectively lead to more migration?

In the existing literature, the impact of climate-induced environmental change on migration is often simply taken for granted. However, environmental change does not affect all people in the same way and individuals do not respond to environmental changes in a unified, singular manner. In addition, it seems plausible that individuals’ reaction to environmental changes might depend on the form and magnitude of the environmental change.

We therefore distinguish between two types of environmental events in our research: 1) those that evolve slowly and are prolonged, such as water and soil salinity, and droughts, and 2) those that occur suddenly and typically are of short duration, such as hurricanes, storms or floods. We argue that when it comes to the latter type of environmental change, individuals often have no other choice but to migrate. Chances to adapt to such kinds of events should be rather small.

Environmental change does not affect all people in the same way and individuals do not respond to environmental changes in a unified, singular manner."

In contrast, slowly and more gradually evolving environ- mental changes should allow for adaptation to the new situation.

But why should individuals want to adapt in situ rather than to migrate? Building on evidence from migration studies, we argue that for most individuals, migration is a costly choice. Individuals need to possess the resources necessary to undertake the move. Furthermore, individuals are typically strongly attached to their home location by social ties (i.e., their family, friends, and work). Consequently, given the possibility to mitigate and/or adapt to a given environmental problem, individuals should prefer to adapt in situ rather than to migrate.

And indeed, our data from Vietnam show that climate-induced environmental changes do not necessarily lead to more migration. On the contrary, if there is the possibility to adapt to, say, salinity or drought conditions, individuals will try to do so as long as possible. On the other hand, extreme weather events such hurricanes or floods often do not leave individuals any other option than to migrate.

Policy implications

Our findings have far-reaching policy implications. The results suggest that more efforts should be spent on capacity building and promoting in situ adaptation possibilities for those affected by climate-induced environmental changes. Technologies such as temperature-resistant seeds or modern water management and irrigation practices can be helpful in this regard. In particular, for development aid strategies, our findings support greater efforts and investments in projects that focus on adaptation. An example of enhanced measures for adaptation to climate change is the 2014 launched pilot project of the World Bank (Pilot Program for Climate Resilience - PPCR), which has invested approximately US$1.2 billion in coastal zone management and disaster early warning systems in small island countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and Saint Lucia.


This blog post was based on an article on “Environmental Stressors and Migration: Evidence from Vietnam”, co-authored by Vally Koubi and Thomas Bernauer (ETH Zurich), Gabriele Spilker (University of Salzurg), and Lena Schaffer (University of Luzern).

Image credits: Nam Dinh province in Vietnam, hit by tropical cyclone Bebinca in June 2012 / Vally Koubi // Drought-affected plants in Vietnam 2010 / eltpics under CC BY-NC 2.0 // Water levels have been rising rapidly throughout the mekong delta / European Commission DG ECHO under CC BY-SA 2.0