Fact check: are water crises driving rising global migration?

Stories of people fleeing their homes because of flooding or drought can make for compelling headlines. But the reality for most migrants is much more complex. How can better water management make a difference?

Is water stress driving people to migrate? Media reports can be unintentionally misleading when it comes to coverage of water crises and migration.

Warnings that water crises are driving people away from their homes often over-simplify a complex set of factors. While issues relating to water can play a role, policies must address all these complex issues holistically.

What role does water play in migration?

A 2021 report by the World Bank suggests there are more than a billion migrants in the world today, and makes a clear link with water stress: it links water deficits to 10% of the rise in global migration. 

Seventeen of the world’s countries – home to 25% of the world’s population – are already experiencing what the organization describes as ‘extreme water stress’. The global water crisis is being exacerbated by climate change, for example driving an increase in rainfall variability, extreme weather events and water shocks.

However, while the World Bank report found that a lack of water can impact migration flows, it is just one of many factors which can lead people to migrate, alongside political, demographic, economic and social factors.

Long-term trends, short-term triggers

As with most demographic phenomena, migration is driven and shaped by a complex mix of human and environmental factors. Some of these develop over the long term, while other, more extreme events can act as triggers, prompting more sudden migration flows.

The deterioration of water quantity and quality over many years can force people to migrate, as happened when decades of water mismanagement caused the Aral Sea to dry up, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Prolonged water stress like this is often associated with other long-term factors, such as pollution, political instability, lack of economic opportunity – often amplified by poor governance and gender inequality.

It can be tempting to oversimplify events which trigger migration journeys, and water extremes such as flooding and drought can act as short-term drivers of migration. However, underlying factors are likely to be an important contributor in the decision to move.   

This combination of long- and short-term drivers was observed by the United Nations University in its analysis of recent migration from Central to North America. Although severe drought in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala contributed to pushing populations away from their homes, the research says, long-term environmental degradation, food insecurity, political instability and violence also played a role. 

And, significantly, those worst affected by or most vulnerable to short-term water crises – the poorest communities – are least likely to move long distances or cross-border. They can’t afford to do so.

Better water management for increased resilience

By balancing different interests when making decisions about water, we can improve economic security, foster stronger social ties, and build resilience against short-term shocks such as droughts or flooding. 

Because water plays a central role in daily life and underpins all economic activity, data-driven, holistic water management practices can help in addressing both long-term challenges and triggers of migration. 

This was the case in Niger, where the International Water Management Institute used data from over 2,000 farm households in drought-vulnerable Niger to support improved irrigation programmes. This helped to reduce food insecurity by 14%, protecting farming communities against water crises and the pressure to leave their land.

In Somalia, more than half a million people were displaced in 2020 following flash floods, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is working with the government to identify sustainable water solutions to address acute water needs. The IOM says that in 2020, anticipatory measures to address water scarcity within a wider context prevented internal displacements and contributed to the reduction of disputes related to water resources.  

The bigger picture

Safe, orderly and regular migration can be an important contributor to economic growth and improve lives at both the origin and destination. In order to understand migration and develop fair and sustainable policies, it is vital that water be considered.    

Improved data, evidence and monitoring is needed to develop policies which address all the contributing factors, protecting those who wish to migrate, and supporting those who do not. 

These include adequate infrastructure in rapidly expanding cities,  – where water demands are predicted to rise by 50% within 30 years – supporting developing nations, which host 85% of international refugees, and reinforcing water resilience in rural areas. 

By protecting water sources, balancing competing economic interests and managing water sustainably, we can make important progress towards a world where migration is a choice, not a necessity.

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