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As part of the IOM-led MECLEP project on Climate Change and Migration, we did a case study of the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta. The outcomes of this study are now published in the report 'Adapting to climate change through migration: a study of the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta', co-authored by Han Entzinger and me. You can download the full report here

Executive summary:

Environmental change can be an important driver of migration. This applies particularly to areas that are highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, such as flooding, salinization, drought and erosion. This ‘environmentally induced migration’, as it is conceptualized in the migration literature, is in itself not a new phenomenon. Over the ages, many instances of migration have occurred in response to climate change and to environmental developments in general. However, recent research has shown that, although the scale of ‘environmentally induced migration’ (Entzinger, Jäger and Gemenne, 2010) is difficult to measure, there are important indications that it is increasing rapidly in response to global climate change.

In some cases, it is very obvious that changes in the environment lead to migration – domestically as well as internationally. This seems to be particularly the case in response to rapid-onset environmental events, such as cyclonic storms, typhoons, floods and earthquakes. In such cases, the term ‘displacement’ tends to be used, rather than ‘migration’. However, when slow-onset processes (such as saturation, salinization, drought and sea-level rise) are involved, it is often difficult to distinguish environmentally induced migration from other kinds of migration – especially those driven by economic factors. Environmental degradation can diminish – or, at least, change – the structures of livelihoods in specific areas, inducing people to migrate. Such degradation, however, can take place over a period of several years or more.

The MECLEP (Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy) project seeks to develop a better theoretical and empirical understanding of the relationship between climate change and migration. In particular, the project focuses on establishing to what extent different forms of migration (spontaneous, forced or planned migration) offer adaptation strategies in response to climate change (Lackzo and Aghazarm, 2009; Black et al., 2011). Environmental change is interpreted in a broad sense, involving both rapid- and slow-onset processes of environmental change. People may respond to climate change in many different ways, developing strategies for minimizing environmental degradation and technical measures for coping with the consequences of climate change (such as dike construction).

Migration can be an alternative strategy for coping with climate change. This can involve individual or household-level decisions to migrate permanently or seasonally to another area that is less affected by climate change. It can also involve coordinated strategies or policies to promote migration from affected regions to safer areas that provide new opportunities of livelihood — so-called relocation strategies. In the context of the MECLEP project, relocation is defined as "permanent voluntary migration, with an emphasis on re-building livelihoods in another place" (IOM, 2014).

The Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (hereafter, Viet Nam) is one of the countries that has been and is being particularly affected by the consequences of climate change, given its many vulnerable regions. Perhaps the most significant of these regions is the Mekong River Delta in the south of the country. This low-lying area, of great importance to the Vietnamese economy, has been particularly affected by flooding of the Mekong River, by erosion, and increasingly also by salinization and sea-level rise. Furthermore, the vulnerability of this region is significant because of the high level of dependency of its population on the various forms of agriculture and fisheries that are also affected by climate change. This has contributed to various domestic migration flows to larger cities within the Mekong River Delta, such as Ca Mau and Can Tho, but also to the largest city in the region — Ho Chi Minh City. Some of this migration has been spontaneous, but the Vietnamese Government has developed some fairly extensive relocation policies, resulting in significant organized migration (Chun and Sang, 2012; United Nations Viet Nam, 2014).

The two key questions to be addressed in this report are: how and why migration (including relocation) has been applied as an adaptation strategy in response to climate change in the Vietnamese Mekong River Delta, and what implications this has had for migrants and their households as well as for their areas of origin and destination. Firstly, we will analyse which migration flows have emerged within and from the Mekong River Delta, together with an in-depth analysis of the social and economic characteristics of households that have migrated and an analysis of the environmental stress experienced by these households. Secondly, we will analyse the implications of migration for these households, as well as for the areas of origin and destination, including in-depth interviews with local stakeholders involved in domestic migration to or from a specific region.

However, we will first briefly sketch the context of climate change and migration in the Mekong River Delta, providing an assessment of the environmental challenges, as well as an overview of migration within and from the region. The research design and the methods deployed in this research will then be discussed, followed by an in-depth empirical analysis of migration in response to climate change and its broader implications. The policies that target these migration flows, directly or indirectly, will also be analysed and, finally, we will explore the conclusions of our analysis of how migration can be used as an adaptation strategy in response to environmental challenges: what can policymakers learn in this regard, and what can we contribute to the broader literature on climate change and migration?