Planned Relocation: A Conversation with Climate Displacement Expert Elizabeth Ferris

As communities affected by climate change in the United States and around the world grapple with difficult decisions, planned relocation is increasingly seen as an option for adapting to climate change and as a potential solution for those who need to move in the face of irreversible climate impacts. 

We spoke with Elizabeth Ferris, an expert on planned relocation, to learn more about how planned relocation works and where it is happening. Ferris has spent more than a decade researching and writing on climate change, migration, and displacement, and is an author of the groundbreaking 2015 Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change through Planned Relocation (Guidance) developed by the UNHCR, Brookings, and Georgetown University. She is currently a professor at Georgetown University and a member of the Expert Advisory Group of the UN High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement. 

Q: Planned relocation is a relatively new concept. Its meaning and function have been debated widely, and there is a lack of consensus. How do you view the function of planned relocation? 

A:  Many organizations have used different terms in referring to the relocation of communities – whether because of development projects or disasters or climate change – such as resettlement or retreat. I tend to use the term “planned relocation” because it was referenced in the 2010 COP decision in Cancun, when the Conference of the Parties, for the first time, considered mobility as a form of adaptation to climate change and specifically highlight migration, displacement, and planned relocation. And when we started working on the Guidance, we convened an international meeting with lawyers from several different specialties to agree on terminology and settled on the term planned relocations. We then further defined the term in the Guidance to distinguish it from other situations where individuals choose to move on their own. 

This definition has been widely circulated, but there’s still ambiguity around the term. There are big questions, for example, about whether it’s forced displacement or voluntary migration. Sometimes it’s used after a disaster when a community’s habitat has been destroyed. Sometimes it’s seen as a preventive measure to reduce the risk of disasters. Sometimes it’s seen as long-term adaptation to climate change. Whether it’s called planned relocation or managed retreat or something else, the important thing is to think about how this can be used to keep people safe. 

Q: Planned relocation has gained incredible traction in recent years and has evolved from a more theoretical discussion to focused efforts for implementation on the ground. Why is that?

A: When we started working on this in 2010, we collected information for four years before we started the process of coming up with the Guidance. We wanted to build on existing experiences and pull out good practices. There are hundreds of cases that have occurred in the past and are occurring now, but there isn’t a central repository of knowledge. I’m encouraged by the efforts of a couple of colleagues, Sanjula Weerasinghe and Erica Bower, who are now working on a database. They have found many different cases of planned relocations that have taken place under different names in different parts of the world and on different scales. I’m hoping that the database will give us insights into the factors that make a difference between successful and failed relocation efforts.

 So, is planned relocation becoming more used, or are we just more aware of it now? I really don’t know. I think more governments are beginning to consider using planned relocation, which is good. It’s much easier to develop a policy before you start moving people and then adapt it as necessary rather than trying to do it in the heat of the moment – say, right after an earthquake or a landslide. We know that every context is different and that a cookie cutter model doesn’t work, but there do seem to be issues common to all planned relocations. For example, who makes the decision that a community needs to be relocated? Where do you get the land? How do you pay for it? How do you ensure that people’s livelihoods are protected? There are certain common themes that occur whether there are ten people or one hundred thousand people.

Q: What are some examples of planned relocations that have already occurred or are currently underway? What lessons can be learned?

 A: In the United States, there are several examples, such as the relocation of several indigenous Alaskan villages. While more than 30 villages have been identified as needing to be relocated, it’s been hard to secure the necessary funding to actually carry them out. And then there’s the well-known case of Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana, where the relocation of the community has been in progress for several years now. 

There hasn’t been much systematic research on the experiences of people who have been relocated but there’s a good study on relocations in Vietnam, where very large numbers of people have been moved by the government to protect them from flooding. IOM carried out systematic surveys of people who had been relocated, asking questions such as: Are you better off? Are you glad you moved? What went wrong? And the study seems to show that people feel safer after the relocation and they’re glad they moved, but also that the relocation meant that they took on a lot of debt and thus that there has been an economic cost to the move. 

 I think the big shortcomings with planned relocations occur when the planners think of the move mainly in terms of architecture, such as building new houses, and don’t think about things like jobs and transportation, whether people can access services, and whether people can recover their culture. It’s complicated to move a whole community. There are tons of bad examples where, often with the best of intentions, people were moved, but it didn’t work out. After Hurricane Mitch back in 1998 in Central America, there were some major projects that constructed beautiful new homes for people displaced by the hurricane. But there weren’t any jobs near the new site, and there wasn’t any transportation, and people were two or three hours away from a city. And within a short period of time, almost everyone had moved away, leaving all those nice houses empty. Too often governments think they just have to build some new houses and move people, and then they’re done. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You really need to involve the community itself from the beginning.  

Q: Are there ways to measure and evaluate the success of planned relocation? In what ways can we ensure that planned relocation is actually “durable”?

A: The number one criterion is: Are people safer? Are they more secure after being relocated? And then secondly, we built into the Guidance that people have to be at least as well off as they were before they relocated. And this we drew from the World Bank’s experience with development-induced resettlement, where often people who have been resettled are not better off: They are worse off. Economies are poorer. Peoples’ livelihoods suffer. They don’t have as good access to services. They don’t feel like they are a part of a community. They miss their culture. So I think that a second standard is, how do people evaluate their situation in comparison with their living conditions before the relocation? 


Featured Image: Photo by Refugees International. Teenage boys displaced by drought in Ethiopia.