SENSE Workshop on Migration in the Context of Water Scarcity

7 December 2017

On 6 December, Research School SENSE, together with IVM-VU and Amsterdam Water Science, organised a Workshop on Migration in the context of Water Scarcity. The workshop was the second in a series and attracted 30 participants from diverse backgrounds. Three keynote speakers presented a range of perspectives on the topic with answers from their own field of expertise. The workshop presentations were live-streamed to all members of the SENSE network in Europe.

Is water scarcity a driver of migration? Was a drought preceding the unrest in Syria the tipping point for the outbreak of a civil war? Do climate change and water scarcity pose a specific threat to security? Can we model the risk on conflict using both socio-economic, political and climate indicators? Which hydro-meteorological indicators are important to predict global insecurity and are they influenced by climate change?

Introduction by moderator David Zetland

Moderator David Zetland (Leiden University College) is a water policy expert as well as author of popular and academic writing on the political economy of water. David kicked-off the workshop by sharing his experiences in California: "Projected climate change will bring more radical weather, which means we might experience an increase in involuntary displacement and migration due to water scarcity.“.

He then introduced the three speakers:

  • Dr. Andreas Sterl - KNMI, senior scientist in weather and climate modeling.
  • Dr. Louise van Schaik - Clingendael, head Clingendael International Sustainability Centre and senior research fellow in scarcity of natural resources.
  • Dr. Karen Meijer - Deltares, pecialist in global environmental governance and multi-actor policy implementations.

Andreas Sterl. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Andreas Sterl on migration and droughts in Syria

Andreas Sterl introduced us a case concerning Syria; critically analysing the influence of a drought preceding the civil war and the possibility that climate change might have amplified this drought. While it is likely that a drought increased potential for violent unrest in Syria, a relation between drought migration and unrests is difficult to prove (e.g. why didn’t the same drought end up in a civil war in Turkey?).

It is evident that water scarcity has increased in the region, but a direct link with climate change is difficult to quantify. While the 2007/8 drought may have been intensified by climate change, it is apparent that a lot of other factors have contributed to its impact (bad governance, finances for relief aid, technical water management measures).

Louise van Schaik. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Louise van Schaik on migration and security

Louse van Schaik talked about the links between climate change, environmental challenges (food and water security) and conflict risks. It is estimated that 200-300 million people more may migrate due to climate change. However, apart from environmental push factors of migration other important factors such as geo-political instability, social network and economic situation should be taken into account.

There are multiple no-regret options that can weaken the environmental push factors for climate-induced migration. However, there should be governance support and sufficient finance for this, currently hampered by political sensitivities on the link between climate variability and conflict.

Powerpoint presentation Karen Meijer. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Karen Meijer on modelling droughts

To predict water scarcity and where it can have disruptive societal consequences requires adequate water shortage indicators with relevance to conflict and migration. To estimate impact of water scarcity on human livelihoods, For instance, indicators should not just include precipiation or ground water levels, but also human land use. Also, do we look at droughts in areas where conflict occurs or droughts in areas on which the conflict-area depends (via trade for example)?

Deltares combines data on government effectiveness, GDP dependence on agriculture and numbers on current water scarcity and frequency of droughts to develop hotspot maps. These maps show the combined risk of drought escalating to severe consequences and can be used to find out what can be done to prevent it.

Audience in plenary. Photo: Lars de Ruig.

Break-out sessions

After a coffee break, the group was split up to discuss two statements regarding migration and water scarcity. Participants were challenged to adopt a pro or a contra opinion concerning the statement and had to argue based on their allotted point of view. Participants brought up arguments from their own field of study, making the discussion session interdisciplinary and very varied; multiple out-of-the-box thoughts were shared.

Break-out session 1. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Session 1

The first statement was as follows: “Climate projections show a drying trend in the wider Mediterranean area. It is very likely that extreme drought events become more frequent in this region. We can expect a situation similar to Syria if we do not anticipate on it”.

While the “against”-group argued that the situation in Syria is an international geopolitical conflict, the “pro”-group showed that even in a stable country like Spain, a very small event can cause underlying differences to come to the surface. All agreed that both examples are too extreme, but indeed a drought and a bad or unequal drought response can trigger political instability and group formation (as is seen in Ethiopia in 2015).

Besides, we all agree that the Mediterranean region has to face a huge challenge, as population has increased a lot (mostly in the southern part of the region) which poses a huge pressure on the scarcely available fertile land and freshwater resources. This will enhance the difference between people who have plenty of access and people who have not; and this can result in increasing violence.

Lastly, the group brainstormed about solutions to avoid Syria-situations in the Mediterranean, and noticed the dual effect of huge “grey infrastructure” measures and trade; both strategies enable people to live in a situation (and rely on the available water) that might not be sustainable. When drought occurs and water becomes scarce (or water prices too high); they are not prepared hence more vulnerable than they would’ve been without such water infrastructure or (virtual) water trade.

Break-out session 1. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Session 2

On the statement “Migration driven by droughts can be compared with migration out of high-risk flood zones”, the main argument was that both hazards are quite dissimilar. Droughts have a slow onset and gradual, indirect impacts, while floods have fast, direct impacts but seldom last long. A main similarity is that good governance (including knowledge, money and maintenance) can minimize the risk on both hazards and that the direct link between climate change, floods/droughts and permanent migration is yet to be established. Then followed a discussion on the idiosyncrasy of droughts. If the carrying capacity of a region is not large enough to support agriculture due to frequent droughts, what should we do with the rural communities living there? These questions are similar to flood risk zones. What are the consequences of, for instance, insurance or obligatory displacement? Are the evacuation strategies of droughts comparable with those of other hazards (like volcanoes?)

Break-out session 2. Photo: Lars de Ruig

Closing plenary

After discussing both statements in a closing plenary, we could all agree that water scarcity –driven by drought (hydro-meteorological issue) AND access to water (financial, governance issue) is very complex. Hence it is hard to find pure evidence of ‘migration due to water scarcity’ as the migration will have other causes such as geopolitical stability, and socio-economic context and bad resources management. Droughts are not necessary the only driver of migration, usually droughts only turn into disasters due to a multitude of interacting factors such as suppressive regimes, poor economic conditions, religious tensions and (drought-driven) water scarcity. We could all agree that climate change will challenge more regions to cope with this issue, and that adequate mitigation and adaptation strategies are required.

Break-out session 2. Photo: Lars de Ruig.


The workshop was concluded with drinks, where discussions were continued until the early evening and plans for a follow-up workshop were made.

A thank you to all speakers and participants and to the four IVM PhD candidates that organised the workshop: Marthe Wens, Nadia Bloemendaal, Marleen de Ruiter, and Lars de Ruig.

Written in collaboration with Marthe Wens

Published by  IBED Water