The risk of disaster-induced displacement in South Asia


This technical paper provides evidence-based estimates of the likelihood of disaster-induced displacement in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

It attempts to better quantify human displacement risk. It brings together data from several sources – notably the Global Assessment Reports (GARs) and the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), national disaster loss inventory databases (DesInventar) and IDMC’s Global Estimates – in order to better quantify human displacement risk. Applying a probabilistic risk model, it is one of the first attempts to assess how many people are at risk of being displaced by natural hazard-related disasters. It is the first attempt to do so for South Asia.


The study reflects an awareness of the need to see disasters as primarily social, rather than natural, phenomena.
This view acknowledges the fact 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.
Disasters are thus no longer considered as ‘natural’ or ‘acts of God’ but, instead, as something over which humans exert influence and can therefore prevent.

This reconceptualisation of disasters signifies a shift from a retrospective, post-disaster approach to an anticipatory way of thinking about and confronting the risk, not the disasters. This conceptual development was reflected in a public policy objective of focusing on disaster risk reduction (DRR). Strengthening DRR became a global priority in the 1990s, the United Nations’ International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, UN Member States adopted the 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), a ten-year plan endorsed by the UN General Assembly which aims to reduce the risk of disasters globally.

The objectives codified in the HFA are currently being updated in advance of a global conference scheduled for March 2015 in Sendai, Japan, at which Member States will renew their commitment to DRR. One important outcome of the HFA process is awareness that without ability to measure losses from disasters it is not possible to know if disaster risk has been reduced.

In the context of disasters, displacement includes all forced population movements resulting from the immediate threat of, or actual, disaster situation. This is regardless of length of time displaced, distance moved from place of origin and subsequent patterns of movement, including back to place of origin or re-settlement elsewhere. Based upon existing information, and notwithstanding some notable exceptions, the vast majority of people displaced by disasters are assumed to remain within their country of residence, rather than to cross internationally recognised borders to find refuge.

Displacement is a disaster impact that is largely determined by the underlying vulnerability of people to shocks or stresses that compel them to leave their homes and livelihoods just to survive. The number of people displaced is, of course, related to the magnitude and frequency of extreme hazard events. The most significant factors are those that leave communities exposed and vulnerable with low levels of resilience. The combination of these factors often means that such communities sustain regular losses that exceed their development gains, leaving them in worse conditions as time passes by. Addressing exposure and vulnerability to hazards and increasing resilience will reduce disaster losses and displacement in the future.

Informed by this anticipatory way of thinking about disasters, the approach used in this study departs from most existing analyses in two ways.

First, while the efforts of many governments and other actors continue to emphasise post-disaster and post-displacement response and recovery this analysis is based on probabilistic risk modelling. This uses historical information available about past disasters to provide estimates that may inform policy and action to ideally prevent, or at least to prepare for, displacement before a disaster occurs.

Second, while displacement and disasters have traditionally been associated with humanitarian relief and human rights-based protection, this study analyses disaster-induced displacement in the language of the disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management communities. This helps bridge the gap between pre-and post-disaster activities and stakeholder groups. In sum, this study attempts to provide entry points for humanitarian and protection actors while presenting information aimed at those responsible for disaster risk reduction, risk management and development.