Disaster-related displacement risk: Measuring the risk and addressing its drivers

Justin Ginnetti, with Chris Lavell, Travis Franck


This report applies the concept of risk to disaster-related displacement and quantifies human displacement risk around the world. It reflects an awareness of the need to see disasters as primarily social, rather than natural, phenomena. This view acknowledges that humans can act and take decisions to reduce the likelihood of a disaster occurring or, at the very least, to reduce their impacts and the levels of loss and damage associated with them.

The study brings together data from several sources – notably the Global Assessment Reports (GARs), international and national disaster loss databases (EM-DAT and DesInventar) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s (IDMC) Global Estimates and Disaster-induced Displacement Database (DiDD).

Key findings

Displacement risk trends:

  • Disaster-related displacement risk has quadrupled since the 1970s.
  • Displacement risk has increased at twice the rate of population growth, meaning that people are twice as likely to be displaced now than they were in the 1970s.
  • The number of mega-events that displace more than 3 million people has been increasing. These mega-events are responsible for the overall increase in displacement risk.
  • In absolute terms, countries in Asia have the highest risk of being displaced. This is due to the fact that there are a large number of vulnerable people in Asia exposed to multiple natural hazards.
  • When population size is accounted for small island states face disproportionately high levels of displacement risk, with Antigua and Barbuda, Haiti and Cuba being among the twenty most at-risk countries.
  • Approximately 30 per cent of the pastoralists in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and south-central Somalia are at risk of becoming permanently displaced from their way of life between now and 2040, even if climate change does not make droughts more frequent or severe.

Displacement risk drivers:

  • Displacement risk is measured in the following way: Risk = Hazard x Exposure x Vulnerability. The quadrupling of risk since the 1970s is due to the fact that exposure has increased much more quickly than vulnerability has been reduced whereas the occurrence of hazards has remained largely unchanged.
  • Climate change may increase displacement risk in the future in at least two ways: first, by increasing the frequency and intensity of some weather-related hazards; and second by increasing certain communities’ vulnerability and reducing thresholds at which point people become displaced.
  • The primary driver of increased in exposure since the 1970s has been rapid, unplanned development in hazard-prone areas in developing countries. This rapid urbanisation concentrates large numbers of vulnerable people in dangerous locations.
  • Weak or corrupt governance structures can further exacerbate this dangerous process by creating incentives for people to move into hazard-prone areas – or forcing them to live there.
  • Conflict and generalised violence affects several of the most at-risk countries, further increasing the vulnerability of communities, undermining their ability to resist and cope with natural hazards.

The way forward:

  • A disaster is not defined by the number of fatalities, the amount of economic losses or the number of people displaced. It is all of these things – and other impacts – together.
  • The drivers of disaster-related displacement risk in particular are the same as the drivers of disaster risk in general. Thus most measures taken to reduce disaster risk – such as the adoption and enforcement of land use plans and stronger building codes, diversifying and strengthening the livelihoods of the rural and urban poor – will also reduce displacement risk.
  • As the world’s governments convene in 2015 and 2016 to agree on global disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and sustainable development goals, they have a unique opportunity to address displacement risk and several other objectives simultaneously.
  • Coordinated and coherent international policy agreements and plans between these different forums are critical for addressing displacement risk. Otherwise, governments risk artificially splintering one problem into multiple conceptual, operational and policy silos.


Ginnetti, J., with C. Lavell and T. Franck (2015). Disaster-related displacement risk: Measuring the risk and addressing its drivers. Geneva: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre / Norwegian Refugee Council