Retreat Resettlement Issues

Leader: Alex de Sherbinin
Thursday, November 30

About the Readings

Managed retreat as a response to natural hazard risk
Hino, Field and Mach, 2017, Nature Climate Change

This paper evaluates cases of managed retreat that have resettled around 1.3 million people over the past three decades. The conceptual model developed establishes a foundation for understanding and anticipating case-specific complexities. The model identifies key sociopolitical attributes likely to promote or impede adoption of managed retreat. The model categorizes the cases into four groups: mutual agreement; greater good; hunkered down; and self reliance. For example, the ‘mutual agreement’ group is where residents initiative the move, and there are broader society benefits. In this group, place attachment and community networks strongly affect the final outcome and have largely been limited to post-disaster settings. The goal is for this model to help evaluate if and how to implement managed retreat.

The impact of climate change on tribal communities in the U.S.
Maldonado et al., 2013, Climate Change

Communities that face greater likelihood of relocation are also often those that have experienced systemic poverty and injustice. This paper looks at communities’ advocacy efforts and strategies in dealing with climate change, displacement and relocation, specifically with tribal communities in Coastal Alaska and Louisiana. The cases point to a number of legal and policy implications. There is no government agency tasked with managing community relocation. Federal programs that do exist to help communities prepare for disasters are unavailable to many tribal communities because of their small size and remote location. The authors make recommendations on steps for community-led and government-supported resettlement programs. They call for management and planning through participatory processes and according to communities’ needs and priorities. Protocols that guide this framework should be rooted in a human rights approach.

Resettlement in the twenty-first century
Oliver-Smith and de Sherbinin, 2014, Crisis

Resettlement/planned relocation has a poor track record, due to lack of inputs such as legal frameworks, policies, funding and care. Resettlement also requires a complex interaction of cultural, social, environmental, economic, institutional and political factors that are not conducive to rational planning. When it comes to preventive resettlement, it is difficult to muster political will and resources in absence of a major disaster, even in areas with a high probability of disaster. The authors conclude by stating that: “a key element to improvement in resettlement practice will be the recognition that the displaced must be seen as active social agents of their own views and rights on entitlements.”

Discussion Summary

Incentivizing Planned Relocation
Planned relocation is not just about moving people from A to B. It is a complicated problem that involves reconstituting the social fabric of a community, if that is even possible. Development-forced displacement and resettlement has a checkered history, but the experience of disaster-related resettlement has produced marginally better results. Stressed migration is to be avoided, where people have to move suddenly with very few possessions. Human rights need to be considered, and there needs to be adequate funding and clear lines of governmental authority and responsibility.

There may be many cases that could theoretically be deemed relocation that are never recorded as such. Examples could include where people move voluntarily or don’t move to a place because of some piece of information about the risk of being there. There are others who would leave if they could, but the buyout money is gone and asset values have dropped, leaving them stranded—especially if their mortgage debt is greater than the home’s price.

With resettlement, you need economic incentives and enough social upheaval that people welcome government intervention. However, those economic incentives will be different in each context, different for each economic group, different for receiving communities, etc. It would be difficult to find an economic incentive big enough to move someone elsewhere, especially pre-disaster.

The risks that people care about are much more immediate – for example, people who live in high-crime neighborhoods. Are they not eligible for relocation? They are also facing risk. From a public policy perspective, how do you allocate resources and determine eligibility? Could a program be criticized for focusing on climate and climate change risk at the exclusion of other risks?

The Role of Intermediaries
One aspect of successful resettlement may be working with intermediaries, in whatever form (NGO, CBO, etc.). There is not much research on their role or impact, but there are a couple of examples.

In Istanbul, some resettlement occurred after a 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 people. The government used intermediaries – agencies of engineering consulting firms – to assess risk at people’s property. Community members received a report of the risk, which could then lead to resettlement or rebuilding. People felt empowered because they felt they had a choice.

In Ghana in the 1960s, there was resettlement of an area led by an architect. This movement was framed as a positive thing for the poor people of the valley.

Human rights need to be considered, and there needs to be adequate funding and clear lines of governmental authority and responsibility.

Retreat to Where?
We need more research on this aspect of resettlement. Could retreat be tied to driving economic growth? With public and private sector participation, could we frame it as an economic positive? There is a lot of potential in repopulating depopulated cities, like Detroit. People would need to be employed, but you could create jobs building solar panels, improving the energy efficiency of homes and buildings, greening public transportation, etc. Rather than build a new city, we could repopulate an existing one.

In Europe, there were some ideas about repopulating villages with conflict refugees, but the refugees didn’t want to go to those areas because of lack of economic opportunities. Climate relocation would depend on economic opportunities, and how much the economic activity is dependent on climate. For example, in the case of desertification of the Sahel, people lose their livelihoods. Coastal areas in Sierra Leone are under pressure from erosion, but people are not leaving because they are dependent on fishing to make a living – this is the area where their economic livelihood is.

The Possibility of Pre-Disaster Resettlement
Pre-disaster and post-disaster resettlement involve very different exercises. All of the ‘mutual agreement’ cases in the Hino paper (see below) are post-disaster. Are there any examples in the world of resettlement happening pre-disaster? Can policies be changed in such a way that government agencies can put aside funds to do something pre-disaster?

You could have anticipatory settlement, but if governments are corrupt it could become a pretext for land grabs. What could be seen as a legitimate humanitarian exercise could be co-opted. Further, if people are forced to move pre-disaster and predictions are wrong, the credibility of this exercise is diminished. It’s difficult to get people to do anything in advance of a disaster – some might say a waste of time. We are not a rational species. There are not many examples where society does something in advance or in anticipation. One thing that can be done in advance is designating receiving areas and policy mechanisms for such transfers, since we know there will be disasters, even if we are not sure exactly where.

Returning Home
People move back to places after disasters. People in California move back to homes after earthquakes, even to houses built on the fault lines. In Houston it is very likely that rebuilding will happen in exactly the same place. Even in NYC, where there is a tremendous amount of climate risk awareness, there is still development happening in these high risk areas. Everyone underestimates how much they will be impacted by climate change.

The idea of resettlement is not that we are forcing people to move, but it is important to have a response policy in place for when resettlement is necessary. Part of this includes having a strategy to engage communications and media outlets, when the disaster happens. Locally, people are amenable to discussing risk and vulnerability around the time that disasters happen. We shouldn’t shy away from having sophisticated media campaigns after disasters. Even though some people view it as profiteering, we should try and reach people when their eyes are open.

Click here for a full summary of the discussion.