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Water-Migration nexus and the human displacement discourse

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Blog Series

Delivering water, energy and food for all in a sustainable and equitable way is a major challenge faced by society. The water-energy-food nexus concept aims to address this by better understanding how interactions between water, energy and food are shaped by environmental, economic, social and political changes and how the synergies and trade-offs among them can be better planned and managed. The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is a network of people and organisations which fosters transdisciplinary research and communicates the importance of holistic system approaches across water, energy and food systems. Acknowledging that the nexus concept is often described as overly academic and not practical on the ground, the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network is organising this blog series to illustrate the role of the nexus concept in addressing local and national challenges of sustainable and equitable access to resources. Understanding the perceptions and entry points with which local and national stakeholders can engage with the nexus concept is key to further implementing nexus approaches, especially in the Global South.

Learn more about the Future Earth Water-Energy-Food Nexus Knowledge-Action Network. 

Water-Migration nexus and the human displacement discourse

By Nidhi Nagabhatla

“Migration has always been with us. Climate change, demographics, instability, growing inequalities, and aspirations for a better life, as well as unmet needs in labour markets, mean it is here to stay. The answer is effective international cooperation in managing migration to ensure that its benefits are most widely distributed, and that the human rights of all concerned are properly protected." — UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 17 December 2018.

Environmental and climate crises are triggering human displacement (IOM 2017), and this trend has been on the rise since the 1990s, especially in low and middle income countries. Regions and states vulnerable to socio-economic, climatological, and socio-political affairs, namely, South, East and Southeast Asia (Srivastava & Pandey 2017), sub-Saharan Africa (Liehr et al. 2016) and parts of Latin America (Vignoli 2017), are also at risk. Water crises, in particular, have a large impact on migration (Guppy & Anderson 2017, Nagabhatla & Niamir 2018). These challenges are complex due to their multilevel, sporadic and episodic nature. As water crises intensify, the need to better understand their complex drivers, which influence decisions to migrate, is vital, particularly for the Global South (Nagabhatla 2017, Bhatiya 2014).

Migration has long been used as a coping strategy for the lack of basic food, energy and water provisioning, availability and access; though, this nexus is not very often formally acknowledged. Water crises are evolving into a critical challenge for the global community and in particular the Global South, which is more vulnerable to natural hazards and other direct and indirect environmental drivers, which in turn influence human development through inequality, poverty, health and governance. The Global Financial Crisis in 2008 coupled with climate change and the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme events, particularly those with a large water footprint, led to a defining trend in human displacement, with more than 195 million people internally displaced by floods and tropical cyclones between 2008 and 2016 (Ionesco et al. 2016 and UNFCCC, 2017).

Human displacement, triggered by the climate crisis, is a new and emerging challenge that may destabilize sustainability and human development, including food, energy and water security (IPCC AR4 WGII). Since 2000, the International Organisation for Migration has produced World Migration Reports which contribute to our understanding of migration around the world through qualitative and quantitative narratives. The most recent report brings migration policy, practice and research together with weather events, conflict and persecution. However, the role of water, climate change and other aspects of environmental features and flows in migration is yet to be addressed. Not only are human displacement scenarios influenced by water, energy and food systems, but they also also influence the water, energy and food nexus. The impact of migration on food, water and energy security seems obvious at the place of origin, transit and destination, especially in case of forced migration. However, new mass migration scenarios which arise due to, for example, droughts and natural resource related crisis, pollution and resource degradation are the result of a network of complex and overlapping dimensions, which need to be examined at the local level and in their specific context and aggregated at national, regional and scale.

In 2015, a staggering 2 billion people drank water from contaminated sources and another half a million people died from the health problems associated with low water quality (WHO 2017). A fair portion of these people, populations, and communities live in vulnerable situations, including temporary shelter and refugee camps. The water, food, and energy availability and accessibility challenges are multifaceted. Four billion people live in severe water scarcity conditions for at least one month per year, between 1.8 and 2.9 billion people live in extreme water scarcity for 4 to 6 months per year, and 500 million people live in continual water scarcity (Water Footprint Network 2016, Mekonnen & Hoekstra 2016). The impact of climate change, including flooding, sea-level rise (Climate Central 2014), and chronic conditions of water shortage, such as persistent droughts (WRI 2017), is projected to destabilize the water, food and energy needs of close to a billion people. Improving our understanding of the mechanisms to stabilise the water, food and energy nexus can be best tackled if data, information, and knowledge of crises, such as soil and water pollution, land degradation and resource related conflicts and the resulting instability, are explored with a contextual, scale-based approach.

Photo 1: Bangladesh is typical example of climatic variability especially increased frequency and gradient of extreme events often times triggering human displacement (Nagabhatla et al. 2015).

The mismanagement of water, energy, and food systems leads to many drivers of migration, such as water stress and food insecurity (Oxfam 2018). In Central America, where fishing and agriculture is a part of daily life, human displacement crises are fuelled by water scarcity and food and energy crises. In El Salvador, more than ninety percent of surface water sources are contaminated and more than half a million rural households lack access to clean drinking water (Oxfam 2018). These human mobility patterns are clearly influenced by development challenges such as accessibility to water and food as well as ecological degradation.The Honduran mass migration that stirred the north American border recently (CNBC 2018) is also driven by poverty, inequality and the impacts of unsustainable mining alongside political instability and economic and financial turbulences in the state.

Photo 2: Glimpse of the Honduran migrants caravan stationing in Mexico (Yurissa Varela, November 2018)


  1. The water, food, and energy context of human displacement is often scattered, embedded, and not always obvious as directly influencing people’s decision to migrate. Understanding the complex interlinkages of this nexus is challenging.
  2. The lack of commonly accepted explanations for environmental migration (within which water, food, energy and climate triggers or drives human displacement) presents difficulties in defining and measuring new and emerging trends in human displacement within and across borders.
  3. The interlinkages in human development and, in particular, the water, food and energy nexus, are largely governed by effective management of trade-offs in resource use, tenures, allocation and governance. One solution is to use a commonly agreed approach (e.g. UNU-INWEH 2018) to categorise and collate individual events and case studies into a larger narrative to influence the global discussion and policy on human migration.
  4. An in-depth investigation with a clear framework which integrates the multifaceted aspects of the water, energy and food nexus is crucial to the ongoing migration discourse and policy discussions (UN 2018).
  5. Tackling migration within the understanding of the water, energy and food nexus helps policy and decision making in both the region of origin and destination to address complexity.

Overall, re-thinking migration is essential to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in a globalised world. It is pertinent to find a balance between understanding the drivers and response mechanisms within the context of the water, energy and food nexus. This understanding is crucial now when the world is seeking facts and expertise for political lobbying on migration related challenges, such as the Global Compact for Migration. The Global Compact for Migration will stimulate discussions for managing the synergies between the different dimensions of migration, including better understanding the water, energy and food nexus for more effective, integrated and planned solutions to address human migration.