Published on People Move

How do you plan relocations to protect people from the effects of natural disasters and climate change?

This page in:
Governments have a responsibility to protect their people, including from disasters and the effects of climate change.  Sometimes that means relocating them to safer areas.  Given that the effects of climate change, exacerbated by settlement patterns and pre-existing vulnerabilities, it seems likely that more people will have to be moved from their original habitats in the future. Millions have been uprooted in the past month from massive floods in places as divergent as South Asia and South Texas. Hurricane Irma has wrought devastation on the islands of the Caribbean as well as South Florida.

While efforts are underway to reduce the risks of disasters and enable communities to adapt to the effects of climate change and remain where they are, sometimes these measures are insufficient.  A landslide or earthquake can destroy a village and people cannot return home.  Sea-level rise may make it impossible for people to remain on their coastal land and they need to move – or be moved – to safer areas. 

The Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed in the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework that more attention should be given to migration, displacement and planned relocations as climate change adaptation measures.  In response, Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Brookings Institution developed Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change. With input from two KNOMAD workshops organized by the Working Group on Migration and Environmental Change, and in collaboration with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UN University and the broader World Bank, the next step was the development of a Toolbox for Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change.  As contexts differ and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to planned relocations, rather than offering prescriptive guidelines, the Toolbox includes checklists of issues to consider and examples of good practices.  

The Toolbox is organized around five cross-cutting issues, all of which need to be addressed at three different stages: making the decision to undertake planned relocation in order to protect people from disasters and environmental change; developing a plan for the relocation and implementing the relocation, including measures pending physical relocation during physical relocation, and in the longer-term.  The five cross-cutting issues are: (1) the legal and institutional framework; (2) the impacts on and needs of affected persons; (3) information, consultation and participation of affected persons; (4) land issues; and (4) monitoring, evaluation and accountability.

The way in which communities and governments address these issues will depend on the particular contexts but some of the good practices identified in the Toolbox may be useful to communities working in very different parts of the world. example, in Sao Tome and Principe, risk maps were used through an interactive, participatory process to identify safe ‘expansion areas’ in the immediate vicinity of the community. This enabled people to relocate to nearby areas where their livelihoods and culture could be preserved.  In Vundidogoloa, Fiji, the painful decision was made to relocate the cemetery where the community’s ancestors were buried to the new location. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority attributes much of the success of its efforts to relocate people after its 2010-11 earthquakes to a carefully-structured participatory process of community engagement.

Much work remains to be done.  Relocating people and communities is a complex undertaking and should be used only as a last resort – after all other alternatives have been explored.  No one wants to be forced to leave their homes, but when it is absolutely necessary to relocate people, we hope that this Guidance and its accompanying Toolbox will at least ensure that the relocation goes as smoothly as possible – and that those who are relocated find safety. Bringing the information in these documents to the field level, through regional and country-level workshops, training and technical assistance, will facilitate this process as planned relocation is contemplated in the years ahead.


Elizabeth Ferris

Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Susan Martin

Director, Institute for the Study of International Migration, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000