In 2017, China was the country with the highest levels of new displacement worldwide, with a total of 4,473,000 new displacements recorded, all disaster-related. While IDMC’s figures on disaster-induced displacement from sudden onset-hazards are readily available, many research gaps remain. In particular, displacement linked to development projects is likely to be substantial, and there is no data available on displacement due to political and ethnic violence.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
China regularly has the highest levels of reported annual new displacement in IDMC’s global reports. All reported displacement is disaster-related. This is linked to the country’s high level of exposure to hazards, limited progress in reducing the vulnerability of exposed populations, and a range of socio-economic factors: as the world’s most populated country and the second largest economy China continues to experience dramatic social and economic transformation, marked by exponential economic growth and development, high levels of rural to urban migration and rapid urbanization. Many densely populated urban areas are located in close proximity to coastal areas and river basins, and face a high exposure to a range of natural hazards. These factors are manifested in consistently high levels of reported annual displacement, as well as a very high risk of future displacement: China has the second highest level of prospective risk of average annual displacement in the region, according to IDMC’s disaster risk model.
The most common hazards are sudden-onset hydrological extreme events, such as flash flooding and riverine flooding. Meteorological hazards, such as tropical storms and typhoons, as well as wet mass movements (mudslides) are also common, while earthquakes occur less often but are highly destructive, leading to significant displacements. China also experiences an annual monsoon season, between the months of May and October, which can also lead to flooding.
Rapid urbanization contributes to the concentration of displacement risk in certain areas. One example of this can be seen in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, a low-lying area surrounding the Pearl River estuary and on the coast with the South China Sea. This area, once dominated by farmland, has rapidly become the most populated metropolitan area in China, with an estimated population size of 42 million people. The area is made up of 9 cities on the mainland, including the provincial capital Guangzhou, which has increased in population size from less than 1 million in 1980 to 11.7 million in 2011. Flooding here is common, as occurred in 2016 with Typhoon Haima, when 763,000 people were evacuated across Guangdong province. The onset of climate change is set to increase disaster risk further as the sea level rises, tropical storms and typhoons from the South China Sea become more frequent, and flash flooding becomes more common.
The complexity of the drivers, dynamics and patters of displacement means that many research gaps remain. Regarding disasters, there is a lack of information on the various slow-onset hazards driving displacement. While environmental degradation, water scarcity and drought are increasingly common and have a devastating impact, as illustrated by the drought reported in Inner Mongolia in 2017, there are currently no figures on displacement directly linked to these phenomena. They evolve slowly and it can be difficult to establish a causal link between the onset of disaster and a subsequent involuntary population movement.
China has modernized at an unprecedented rate, shifting from a largely agriculturally-based economy to an industrial one in a matter of decades, accompanied by a massive movement of people from rural to urban areas. Today, life in the city is still seen as the key to success: in its most recent 5-Year Social and Economic Development Plan, the Chinese government set the ambitious goal of eliminating poverty by 2020. Development projects that lead to displacement include large infrastructure projects, urban expansion and regeneration, and disaster risk reduction projects, although there are major data and information gaps in all of these areas.
Infrastructure projects leading to displacement range across all sectors, including transport, water and sanitation, and energy production, with major projects including the construction of large dams. Displacement linked to dam construction is likely to be substantial in China, as it is thought to be home to nearly half of the world’s 50,000 large dams, of which the renown Three Gorges Dam is just one example.
Another major area of research relevant to China is displacement linked to urban expansion and regeneration. As China has modernized, rapidly expanding cities have led to the eviction of people living in nearby agricultural areas, as farmland is turned into residential areas for the vast numbers of people arriving from the countryside into the cities. However, with the majority of the country’s population (58%) now living in urban areas, city planning has in many cases moved away from simple urban expansion to urban regeneration, improving resource and space usage in pre-existing urban areas. Increasing focus is being placed on medium and small-sized cities (so-called Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities), while the population size of major, Tier 1 cities such as Beijing and Shanghai will be capped. These trends lead to displacement as city-wide clean ups are carried out, with low-income migrant workers in particular facing eviction from certain peripheral, undesirable areas of the city.
Development-induced displacement also occurs in the context of disaster risk reduction, as buildings are made safer and people are moved out of at-risk areas. This is linked to long-term objectives, which often address development and poverty reduction. As part of the most recent 5-Year Social and Economic Development Plan, up to 250 million people are projected to be relocated into purposefully built urban centres by 2026. Many of these people will be moved out of disaster-prone, rural regions.
Finally, another under-researched area is displacement due to conflict and political or ethnic violence. This is particularly relevant in the Tibet Autonomous Region and neighboring Qinghai Province, where political protests and self-immolations by the Tibetan population have been met with a violent crackdown by the government. In addition, in Xinjiang province, tensions between the Uighur minority, China’s ethnic Han majority and the government have been high, with an increase in state repression and the area becoming increasingly militarized in recent years. There are no figures available on internal displacement related to these political tensions.
Where and how do people move?
In 2017, major displacement events included floods in Hunan province, with more than 1,620,000 reported evacuations between June and July, while flooding across 8 southern provinces in June led to 545,000 evacuations. Other major events included Typhoon Khanun, which led to 411,000 evacuations in Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan provinces.
Displacement often takes the form of compulsory pre-emptive evacuations based on meteorological monitoring, vulnerability mapping and risk-based early warning systems. Early warning systems have also been developed for earthquakes, although these disasters are a lot more difficult to predict. Improvements in technology have enabled people to have up to a minute to run for cover, with evacuations taking place after the disaster has occurred.
Unlike in other, less populated countries, authorities usually avoid mass evacuation orders for hydrological and meteorological hazards, as mass movements of people in densely populated areas can cause major travel chaos and road blockages, hindering population movement and relief efforts. Instead, pre-emptive evacuation orders are directed towards populations that have been identified as particularly at-risk. For the arrival of Typhoon Talim in Fujian in 2017, this included people living in areas exposed to strong winds, mudslides and near construction sites where they might be in the path of flying debris. Sports stadiums and school buildings are often used as temporary shelters.
An IDMC study of reports on World Bank funded development projects, published between 2014 and 2016, found that a total of 36,000 people were at risk of displacement across 41 projectsspreading from Xinjian in the far west to Guangdong in the south-east. These projects range from infrastructure for water and sanitation , such as improved sanitation systems, or for transport, such as road improvements and extensions. They can also include rebuilding efforts after major earthquakes, such as those that shook Sichuan province in 2008 and 2013. While these examples serve to show the diversity of projects that can lead to expected displacement, the total figure of people at risk of displacement is likely to be much higher.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Although the number of evacuations due to disasters in China is very high, there is little information available about what social, health and economic impacts people may face when they are evacuated. For disasters, living situations vary according to the length of time that people are displaced; with people staying in school buildings and sport centers for temporary shelter and being moved to temporary housing and purposely built apartments when a rapid return becomes impossible.
Some large-scale disasters offer more specific and in-depth information. For example, more accurate information is available on the impact of the 2008 Sichuan (Wenchuan) earthquake, due to the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the large-scale reconstruction and recovery operations that were conducted in the aftermath. Reconstruction work was extremely quick, with almost all of approximately 1.5 million damaged rural dwellings, and 78% of homes for 259,000 urban families rebuilt by March 2010, less than two years after the disaster occurred. However, a full return to normalcy was still a challenge for IDPs, with people in rural areas particularly vulnerable due to loss of homes and access to agricultural lands. Displaced farmers in some rural counties received livelihood support, in the form of loans to start small businesses and vocational training.
Although limited information is available on development-induced displacement, case studies conducted of some projects have pointed to a range of adverse impacts of displacement. An IDMC case study on the construction of the 1996 Manwan Dam in Yunnan province showed that the 7,260 people resettled for the project experienced a range of effects in the areas of infrastructure and utilities, housing, livelihoods and ties to the community. People universally did not receive enough compensation to rebuild homes in their resettlement areas, with some families secondarily displaced by landslides after their new homes were built on unsuitable land. While this is a small study only, it points to the problems that can occur when social impact surveys are not conducted at the start of a project, and limited follow-up is conducted to support displaced families.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
Data on disasters is widely available and comes from situation reports published by the Ministry of Emergency Management on disaster events and corresponding evacuations, relocations and emergency relief distributed. Information is available at the provincial and municipal level. Other sources for IDMC estimates include English-language Chinese newspapers, which are helpful to understand the context of certain disaster events and to triangulate figures.
It is much more challenging to find comprehensive data on development-induced displacement. The subject is broad, touching upon a very large number of sectors involving both public and private stakeholders. There is no government source of consolidated data on this topic. In addition, it can be politically sensitive, and there is a lack of information on this topic available to foreign researchers. Some estimates can be obtained from reports of large multilateral organizations that fund development projects, such as the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank. These organizations typically release resettlement plans before a project is implemented, detailing the number of people who are at risk of being displaced by the project. There is, however, a challenge in receiving follow-up information once the project has been carried out, making it difficult to know how many people actually become displaced as a result.
For conflict-induced displacement, there is also a significant lack of data. There is very little information on the impacts of conflict and political tensions in general, and displacement linked to this is not officially recognized.
What are governments currently doing to respond to and prevent displacement?
Relevant policies for disaster-induced displacement cover disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, which are integrated into the Government’s Five-Year Plans. In response to the large number of disasters that China experiences over its territory over a given year, significant investments have been made in improving early warning systems, streamlining evacuation plans, and making buildings more resistant. This includes early warning systems for earthquakes developed after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
While annual disaster displacement figures are often very high, this reflects the large number of (often pre-emptive) evacuations that are carried out. They have contributed to a general trend of reduction of deaths due to disasters, particularly in relation to hydro-meterological disasters.
Regarding development-induced displacement, although estimates on displacement are difficult to come by, the government has made significant improvements in providing compensation for people affected by development projects. Some policies go further than compensation policies required by the World Bank, with legal innovations including mandatory Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) to be carried out before the start of a project, and a "resettlement with development" strategy. This strategy is based on the idea that apart from sufficiently compensating project-affected people for losses of homes and income, it is also important to invest in areas where people are resettled. Policies in this area call on the government to invest heavily in services, infrastructure and in economic opportunities in resettlement areas, so that resettled people can benefit from better living standards than before. These safeguards are important considering the massive scale of pre-existing and planned development projects in China.