Hydrological extremes and migration: How does water influence migratory movements?

Extremos hidrológicos y migración: ¿Cómo el agua influencia los movimientos migratorios?


 “Today environmental problems play a role in migration. Some migrations occur when there is either too much water, as in rising seas, tsunamis and floods, or not enough water. In these countries people depend on the environment for their livelihoods.”

Wennersten, John R. and Denise Robbins. Rising Tides: Climate Refugees in the 21st Century.

Since 1993, the international community has commemorated World Water Day on March 22 of each year to highlight the need to responsibly preserve and manage this resource. In 2020, the selected theme is “water and climate change”, which intends to make visible the changes in water availability associated with climate change and the need to implement adequate adaptation strategies to these new phenomena.

From a migration perspective, it is necessary to understand and address the relationship between water and human mobility. This relationship is particularly evident in situations of hydrological extremes; both when water is lacking and when excess water affects living conditions. In the Americas there are cases of both scenarios and it is worth remembering them when studying the relationship between water and migration.

  • Droughts and migration: When lack of water affects the livelihoods and subsistence of rural populations

Scientific evidence on climate change predicts more intense drought events in certain regions of the Americas in the future, such as in the small island states of the Caribbean, areas of Central and South America (IPCC, 2018). These phenomena are evident today in different countries. The Dry Corridor of Central America, which brings together areas of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and even Costa Rica and Panama, has had recurring drought events with significant effects on production and agricultural yields although with different problems according to geographical areas. In Chile, the state of mega-drought in the central zone since 2010 has required the declaration of agricultural emergency zones to alleviate the lack of water.

Recurrent drought events affect the livelihoods of local populations, particularly in rural and agricultural contexts, through decreased yields, reduced need for labor and even direct impacts on food security when income decreases, or production does not allow needs to be subsidized. These factors can provoke migratory movements when families seek better survival options in the face of drought, and there is scientific evidence that suggests households migrate locally or internally in response to drought (IPCC, 2019).

However, to attribute the cause of migration to drought phenomena is complicated for several reasons. On the one hand, drought can reduce the incomes of the poorest households, which no longer have the means to migrate, especially with regard to international migration (IPCC, 2019). Furthermore, droughts are often a gradual and progressive phenomenon, in which households often try various adaptation strategies before leaving their communities. The dependence on rainwater - due to the type of crop and the limitations of the irrigation systems - increases vulnerabilities in the event of a drought. The dependence on agriculture fed by rainwater is more than 30% in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where the yield of corn and beans change greatly due to climatic variability.

The narrative around the motivating factors of the 2018 migrant caravans reflects some of these debates. While the press identified drought and climate change as a factor in explaining these movements, climate factors never appeared among the first motivations in surveys of migrants. Although there is some overlap, the areas most affected by drought in Honduras, for example, do not correspond to the first areas of origin of migrants according to IOM surveys. However, the high percentage of migrants who worked in the primary sector before their departure and the actual incidence of drought in various areas did allow for a glimpse of the impact of drought on the loss of opportunities at the local level.

  • Floods, tsunamis, hurricanes: Hydrometeorological disasters as a source of displacement

In reports from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), the category of climate-related disasters includes storms, cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes, floods, drought, fires and others. These disasters caused 16.1 million new displacements in 2018, a higher number than displacements caused by conflict and violence (10.8 million) and by geophysical phenomena (1.1 million).

As recent examples from Irma, Maria (2017) and Dorian (2019) show, Caribbean countries are particularly exposed to extreme hydrometeorological phenomena in which strong winds and rains destroy communities and cause mass displacement. However, the Caribbean countries are not the only ones in the region suffering from flood displacement. In recent months there have been heavy floods in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia due to excess rain and the limited capacity of watercourses to channel the torrent.

Displacement due to floods can be temporary or more permanent depending on the situation of the communities before, during and after the disaster. Certain families can return to their communities of origin after the event, when the waters return to their channel. This type of mobility has been evidenced, for example, in communities in Brazil and Argentina, in which recurrent floods promote the seasonal mobility of families outside the danger zone during certain months of the year.


Vulnerability to floods also causes more permanent migratory movements, both for individuals and communities. Hurricane Mitch, for example, caused the departure of Honduran populations in 1998. Some of these migrants accessed the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) in the United States, a status that remains in force for Honduras after a judicial decision that curbed the will of the administration of shut down the protection system.

Planned relocations of populations often respond to the desire to reduce risks related to hydrometeorological phenomena and also represent a form of human mobility. These processes have taken place in many countries in the region. In Nicaragua, for example, several communities around Lake Managua have been relocated to limit the damage caused by regular flooding and improve the living conditions of the populations. Sea level rise is also leading multiple countries in the region, such as Colombia, Panama or Guyana, to consider the potential need to move coastal communities to areas that will not be flooded in the relatively near future (IPCC, 2019).



IPCC. 2018. Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.

IPCC. 2019. Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.-O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.

IPCC. 2019. IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)]. In press.


Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'

Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'
Categoria: Communication & Migration
Autor: Laura Manzi

‘Zamni' (2018) is one of the films that participated in the 2020 edition of the Global Migration Film Festival. The short film, which was selected to be screened at regional level by the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean, narrates the experiences and daily lives of four Haitian migrants in Chile and their integration process in the South American country.

In this interview, the young director Rubén Sánchez, tells what objectives and motivations guided him towards the creation of the short film.

Why did you choose young Haitian migrants as the protagonists of your work? Is there something in their profile that makes them different from other migrant communities in Chile?

What struck us is that the Haitian population here in Chile is the one that finds it most difficult to integrate into society. One of the main reasons is that they speak another language, the Creole language, and that is an even bigger barrier considering that Chilean Spanish has many idioms and tends to be spoken very quickly. Another obstacle to integration is the racism and rejection of some sectors of society towards the Haitian population: whether because of ethnicity, nationality, language or other prejudices. This leads to more segregation and not integration.

In the short film, there are many scenes that portray different landscapes: the sea, the forest, the city. What is the role of nature in the integration process of migrants?

Climatic conditions and landscapes can be a challenge for integration. For example, Haiti is very flat, there are no mountains and the climate is tropical. Here in Chile, nature and microclimates are quite diverse (the north has higher temperatures, the south is more humid and rainy, while the central zone is a mixture of these).
Nature, however, has also a symbolic purpose in the documentary. The mountain range, which characterizes the Chilean landscape, is the great frontier that any person faces to reach Chile. This justifies the scene that opens and closes the film and represents one of the protagonists in the Embalse del Yeso, which is a place here in Santiago, in the middle of the mountain range. We wanted to film those scenes there as a more oneiric way of representing this enormous wall that is like a border to cross in order to reach Chile, and that at the same time symbolizes the great wall that is in the cultural shock that the Haitian population faces.

‘Life is a circle. A perfect circle of which we are not a part': the protagonists in the film have jobs, go to school, learn Spanish. Then, what are the elements that continue to prevent their integration into the host community, this 'circle' from which they are excluded?

The cultural shock is big. If the host society lives this 'fear of the unknown', the Haitian migrant population in turn reacts and this generates a fear of the community where they live. The lack of integration is made difficult by prejudice and because initiatives that value cultural richness are not promoted. I think this is what we lack as a society: to be more educated. If there is no good education, there will be no people who cannot integrate; we still need to be educated and 'humanized'. I feel that in some way we are also 'dehumanized'. This is what the documentary wants to capture: to reflect on the humanity that we need, the humanity that we need to integrate others, to show that we are all really the same, we are all human beings and we all have dreams.

How much is the director visible in his work? How come are you interested in the subject of migration?

The issue of Haitian migration was, for me, a personal concern, because I live in one of the cities in Chile with the largest Haitian population. I used to witness daily this rejection of the Haitian population in the eyes of the people, in comments that were exchanged by whispering in the bus when I went to the university. I was worried about that.
Also, before I enrolled in audiovisual communication, I studied social work, and had many courses on the migration issue and related social policies. I did a lot of research on Haitian migration, which allowed me to capture the central idea of the short film. During the shooting process, I had the opportunity to meet these young people (Haitian migrants), to live their culture, to taste their food. I was filled with a culture that I didn't know, I was filled with knowledge, with a new experience. I wish this documentary could reach more people, change who we are and cultivate our humanity.