A 3-D lens on water and migration

The Aral desert © iStock / alsem
The Aral desert © iStock / alsem

A review by the United Nations University Institute for Water and Health offers guidance on the role of water in migration. Lis Stedman reports.


The United Nations University Institute for Water and Health (UNU-INWEH) report on the links between water and global migration asks important questions about the ‘push factors’ that lie behind the significant increase in migration since the 1990s. It points to growing evidence that water issues are among the increasingly important environmental drivers.

UNU-INWEH Principal Researcher Dr Nidhi Nagabhatla stresses, regarding the report, that there is no “clear, ‘one-size-fits-all’ explanation for a decision to migrate”, which ever-increasing numbers are making, and will continue to make, on a daily basis.

Lack of data limits understanding but, she notes, “context is everything”. She adds that scenarios are very much place-based and a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach would not reflect the complexities migration entails. Researchers looking for direct links between migration and the water crisis point to its key facets – unsafe water, chronic flooding and drought.

Dr Nagabhatla explains that “the challenge is separating those push factors from the social, economic and political conditions that contribute to the multi-dimensional realities of vulnerable migrant populations, all of them simply striving for dignity, safety, stability, and sustainability in their lives.”


Three-dimensional model

The report, using available data from public sources and reviewing it in the context of water and climate, outlines a three-dimensional (3-D) framework to assess water-related migration that connects direct or indirect ‘push factors’ to migration flows. The authors believe this could be useful to aggregate the water-related causes and consequences of migration and interpret them in various socioecological, socioeconomic, and socio-political settings.

This is particularly important because the role of any one factor can be unclear, although droughts and floods are already seen as major issues in migration. Dr Nagabhatla notes that sometimes, one factor can play a major role – flooding, for example – although she observes that “if there are enough social mechanisms, people don’t have to leave home to get support”.

The report’s case studies provide concrete examples – the shrinking of Lake Chad in Africa and the Aral Sea, the saga of Honduran refugees, the rapid urbanisation of the Nile delta, and the plight of island nations facing rising sea levels and more frequent, intense extreme weather events.

Health burdens imposed by water pollution and contamination create vicious cycles of poverty, inequality and forced mobility, the report says. Dr Nagabhatla adds that even with the world fixated on the Covid-19 pandemic, “we cannot afford to put migration’s long-term causes on the back burner. While the cost of responses may cause concerns, the cost of no decisions will certainly surpass that.”

The report says that collecting better data is vital, and that because the relationship between water, climate and migration is complex, and cannot be easily quantified or separated from other contributing and driving factors, specific local context is needed to gain a more in-depth understanding of the specific triggers of the interlinkages.

The report notes that environmental influences work in synergy to create various impacts and outcomes, one of which is migration. Data on the water-migration nexus are limited, embedded, or disaggregated, and migration and water interlinkages are still under-investigated and limited, particularly for quantitative information. For example, gender-disaggregated data are often missing from migration assessments, although (as another complicating factor) migration and displacement add an extra layer of burden and uncertainty to ‘conventional’ gender roles and responsibilities.

For example, cultural norms can mean that only men migrate, which adds many layers of responsibility to women and additional burden that reframes responsibilities.

Development of institutional and community capacity to tackle the many facets related to migration is severely lacking, particularly in developing regions in the global south, the analysis adds. Those involved in mitigating and recovering from natural disasters record numbers of displaced, but only in terms of planning response. Dr Nagabhatla notes that “We have had migration-related UN agencies and actors for a long time, with a focus on response mechanisms. There has not been a lot of work done on drivers, circumstances, causes. The report aims to put causalities into the larger scheme of things.”

Relatively new approaches, such as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, provide little of significance regarding drivers, she feels, but adds “that they do provide a guiding framework to bring water-migration discussions to the main stage”.


Need for a comprehensive assessment

A comprehensive assessment of water-related migration is vital to steer institutional and policy reforms and complement efforts to increase understanding of migration. Future assessments can adopt or adapt the 3-D framework to develop a comprehensive way to better aggregate the drivers and investigate the gaps.

The report notes that a better focus on migration as an adaptation strategy to maximise interconnectedness with the SDGs can help to shift the discourse from a preventative and problematic approach to one that sees migration as contributing to sustainable development.

The available tools offer potential for presenting long-term solutions to improve the ability to manage migration through better coordination and consensus-building, the report concludes. Dr Nagabhatla hopes that the 3-D framework will help with gap analysis. “It is important that we have a guiding framework to aggregate the information. For us, it is a playground to analyse the data, a framework to generate knowledge very specific to the water and climate crisis.”

Dr Nagabhatla concludes: “A framework that is interoperable between actors is necessary to organise large amounts of data and information, and if this early version has a good reception it can be expanded. The 3-D framework can help us to combine the frameworks of science and politics in action for better management.”


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