Displacement in slow-onset crises

Read our thematic series: "No matter of choice: displacement in a changing climate"

Context and main issues

The impacts of climate change on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and environmental degradation will increase displacement risk further in the future. However, displacement is the result of complex and multi-causal processes with slow-onset hazard events being an important, but not the only contributing factor. Population growth, underdevelopment, weak governance, armed conflict and violence, as well as poor urban planning in rapidly expanding cities, are important drivers of displacement as they further weaken resilience and increase vulnerability, and exacerbate the impacts of natural hazards and climate change.

IDMC seeks to unpack more systematically than done to date, how slow-onset processes, building over months or years, reach an emergency phase and turn into a hazardous event within a short period of time. For example, when drought “suddenly” contributes to a famine, or when sea level rise contributes to flooding, people may see no other option than to seek assistance elsewhere for their survival, which leads to internal displacement and cross-border migration. Slow-onset hazards, or the cumulative effect of a series of smaller, sudden-onset hazards, may also erode a community’s and land’s capacity to withstand what would normally be insignificant sudden-onset hazards. In addition, slow-onset events are a hidden aggravating factor in many contexts, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, increasing exposure to hazards and acting as a threat multiplier for other drivers of displacement such as the economic, social, cultural and political factors which are key drivers of displacement.

Increasingly, these interconnected factors will get difficult to disentangle, and may culminate in humanitarian crises, creating internal and cross-border displacement. Accordingly, there is a need to better understand the inter-relationship of these drivers. In particular, IDMC is going to invest in understanding the context-specific links between slow-onset environmental processes and key drivers of human mobility. In this area of research we will present analysis of how different slow-onset events increase the risk of displacement, and assess the scale and dynamics of displacement, in order to inform future policies, tools and solutions. Three possible outcomes of slow-onsets environmental hazards can be identified in terms of population movements: long-term migration, short-term displacement and immobility when population are trapped without the resources to move. Each of them corresponds with multiple drivers and is embedded in socio-economic, political and demographic processes.

Key research areas/work streams

IDMC’s research explores the different forms of movement related to slow onset events; the processes of decision-making on whether and when to move and the role that risk perception plays in it; and the duration and destination of displaced persons as well as their profile and specific needs. Our research covers a range of slow-onset hazards, including those identified by the climate change community (increasing temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification, salinization, glacial retreat and melt of other cryosphere elements, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, and desertification) and those that are directly related and already triggering large-scale displacement today, in particular drought.

We seek to:

  • Contribute to global efforts in identifying areas most exposed to slow onset events and vulnerable populations living in these areas.

  • Better document the relationship between slow onset events and other drivers of displacement.

  • Assess the impacts of slow-onset displacement on the loss of cultural heritage, loss of identity and their consequences for social progress.

  • Model and analyse correlations in specific locations and with different types of climatic stressors (rather than attempting to establish causal links between broad human mobility patterns and climate change).

  • Inform decision makers about changes in human mobility risks vis-à-vis slow onset impacts.

Most of the data available on displacement relates to rapid onset events. There is a lack of data for displacement related to slow onset events. Major data collection and analysis constraints include multi-causality of displacement, the selection of indicators and variables, the different forms and duration of population movements, and the availability of data sources. Due to the time lag between the event and the mobility gradual response and the multiple interlocking factor of slow onset-related displacement, accurate data collection and global quantitative projections are difficult to make. Therefore, IDMC combines modelling efforts with a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Research partners:

IDMC has partnered with three leading European research institutions to unpack the complex nature of slow-onset disaster displacement. These are the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liege in Belgium, the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, and Science Po in Paris, France. In addition, we are working in partnership with local research organisations and experts, and are inviting expressions of interest in new collaboration, particularly from research partners in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia and Pacific region.

At the policy level, on behalf of the civil society organisations of the Advisory Group on Human Mobility and Climate Change, IDMC is a member of the Task Force on Internal Displacement of the UNFCCC Warshaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. It further contributes to the multi-stakeholder efforts under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction led by the UNISDR, and contributes to the goals of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

We are always looking to strengthen and expand our existing partnerships. If you are interested in working with us on slow-onset disaster displacement, please contact bina.desai@idmc.ch