Climate change displacement and the role of the right to water in fighting COVID-19

Tadesse Kebebew, Caroline Pellaton, Mara Tignino


The world is witnessing increased displacement of people prompted by climate change (Laczko and Aghazarm, 2009, p.13 & pp.69-76). Reports indicate that climate change-related displacements due principally to floods, and storms, reached about 23 million in 2019 (IDMC 2020, p.10). The current outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of vulnerability to the climate displaced persons as they often lack access to essential public services, including health care services (Ionesco and Chazalnoël, 2020; OHCHR, 7 April 2020).  

Cognizant of the multicausal nature of displacement (see Nagabhatla et al., 2020, pp.7-10), this article focuses on climate induced displacement (Apap, 2019, pp.3-6) and underscores the role of water as a trigger for climate displacement. It also provides a more focused exploration of the importance of water in tackling the spread of the COVID-19, and the role river basin organizations (RBOs) could play in both preventing displacement related to water scarcity and the spread of the pandemic. To that end, it first addresses how climate change and the scarcity of/stress over water resources could adversely affect people’s well-being and livelihood, thereby inducing displacement. Water scarcity and drought, and water excess (e.g., floods), have been indeed a major source of displacement of people (See GWH, 2017, p.5; Mach, 2017, pp.81-83; Tignino and Mach, 2018, pp.3-4; & UNESCO, 2020, p.20). Second, the article expounds on the importance of protecting access to water to prevent forced climate displacement and guaranteeing such access for displaced people at their destination. It illustrates the role of the right to water for containing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic through hand-washing and improved sanitation. In this context, the article portrays the centrality of the human rights to water and sanitation for climate displaced people, in particular in times of pandemics. This section also introduces the possible role RBOs could play in reducing climate-induced displacement through sustainable water resource management and enhance cooperation in fighting the pandemic. Finally, the paper highlights the importance of a human-rights based approach to address water-related climate-induced displacement and to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19 on climate displaced people.   

 I. Water as a trigger for ‘‘climate displacement’’

Many factors can drive displacement. In recent decades, climate change has presented an unprecedented challenge to humanity, and as per widely accepted predictions, it could displace up to 200 million people by 2050 (Nagabhatla et al., 2020, p.6). In early 1990, it was asserted that ‘‘the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration’’ (Brown, 2008, p.11). Mostly, water-related disasters, such as drought or floods, induced by climate change have been increasing over the last twenty years and actually account for 93,3% of all disaster events (Hiroki, 2019, p.6). For example, in Senegal, in the Peanut basin, lack of rainfall, poor soil fertility, and soil salinization, added to the vulnerability of the rural population, mainly farmers, and induced displacement from rural to urban areas (Bleibaum, 2010, p.194). 

There exists substantial evidence that climate change, including water stress, may trigger displacement (for example, see IOM, 2014; Mach, 2017, pp.83-84; A matter of survival, 2017, p.24; Wrathall et al., 2018, pp.9-10; Rigaud et al., 2018, pp.23-32; & Krakow, 2020, p.19). Water is a crucial element to economic development, poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, and human health (World Bank, 2019, p.1). Thus, water stress creates pressure on sectors reliant upon water resources and aggravate the vulnerability of people. This was highlighted in the 2017 report of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which stated that ‘‘since 2008, an estimated 22.5 million people per year have been displaced, internally or across borders, by weather or climate-related disasters’’ (A/HRC/37/35, § 5). Furthermore, it was also noted in the 2018 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation stating that climate change has been causing ‘‘severe and chronic droughts and flooding’’ and is one of the driving factors for millions of displaced people (A/HRC/39/55, §§ 3&4). 

The impact of water scarcity and drought on displacement could be direct or indirect through triggering conflict (UNESCO, 2020, p.20; & Iceland, 2017). Irrespective of the cause of an armed conflict, it may cause forced displacement. In the context of climate change, ensuring access to water becomes increasingly important both in times of peace and war. Therefore, targeting a water infrastructure may be particularly harmful to the civilians and force their displacement within a country or across its borders.  For these reasons and taking into account the increasing challenges due to climate change, the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure, an initiative led by the Geneva Water Hub and other partners, recognizes that: “the control over the delivery of water, and deprivation thereof, must not be used to force the displacement of civilians.” 

II. Importance of ensuring access to water for climate displaced people

Why access to water? 

As stated by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, access to safe drinking water and sanitation is central for leading a life in dignity and upholding human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the pioneer human rights document under Article 25, enunciates that ‘‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.’’  In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights under General Comment No.15 on the right to water noted that the human right to drinking water is fundamental for life and health and recognises the right for everyone to have ‘‘sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use’’ (E/C.12/2002/11, §§ 1&2). In 2010, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) recognised the human rights to water and sanitation (A/RES/64/292, § 1). Additionally, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation observes that ‘‘access to water and sanitation is not only a fundamental human right for human survival and health but also for living life in dignity’’ (A/HRC/39/55, § 6). Furthermore, the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace has restated that ‘‘the right to safe drinking water and sanitation is recognised as a moral imperative of our time and as a human right’’ (A matter of survival, pp.6 & 53). Yet, some loopholes are observed in the international system regarding this right ‘‘when it comes to establishing enforceable guidelines for the human right to water’’ (Krakow, 2020, p.7). The fact that relevant norms regulating the human rights to water and sanitation are incorporated in instruments with different normative status (mostly soft laws and policy documents) has contributed to obscuring the obligatory aspect of the right (Cullet, 2012, pp.72-74). Nevertheless, the right to water has gained legal recognition as an inherent human right and entitlement and has become an international priority.

Accordingly, states are under obligation to fulfil the rights to water and sanitation for everyone subject to their jurisdiction without distinction. That means water needs to be available, accessible, safe, acceptable, and affordable for all. Thus, displaced people in transit or at their destination have to enjoy the rights to water and sanitation with the same conditions as those granted to nationals of the states concerned, regardless of their legal status and documentation (A/HRC/39/55, § 11).

The World Health Organization underlined that access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) is essential to protecting human health during all infectious disease outbreaks, including the COVID-19 pandemic (WHO, 2020). It is well documented that those who lack access to water and sanitation are acutely vulnerable to the pandemic (OHCHR, 23 March 2020). Even though social distancing and improved hygiene, particularly, hand-washing, are the most effective measures in the fight against the current pandemic, millions of displaced people reside in congested areas or informal settlements or camps where access to basic services is limited. The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced immobility for billions of people in areas affected by climate change and environmental degradation and exacerbated their vulnerability (Ionesco and Chazalnoël, 2020). This makes ensuring access to water and sanitation for such people, an arduous exercise, and that might lead to a vicious cycle of infection risks. That necessitates putting more considerable effort to ensure access to water and sanitation for the displaced persons and to the fight against the pandemic. 

Access to water as a human right 

Persons displaced by climate change and crossed international borders, do not as such qualify as ‘‘refugees’’ as per the definition under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and may not directly benefit from the protection assured by this instrument. Climate-related risks are not recognized as acts of persecution on the basis the 1951 Convention (UNHCR, 2018). However, in the last years, there is an increasing attention to the linkages between climate change and forced displacement. In this context, a decision adopted by the Human Rights Committee in January 2020 should be highlighted. The case relates to denial by New Zealand of an asylum claim from the effects of climate change. In this groundbreaking case, the Committee stated for the first time that states have the obligation not to deport climate change asylum seekers whose right to life may be violated (Ioane Teitiota v New Zealand, § 9.4 & 9.5).

Besides, human rights are universal and inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times and everywhere. Some instruments, including the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 2007 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  recognise implicitly or explicitly the rights to water and sanitation. Moreover, agreements on transboundary water resources such as the 1999 Protocol on Water and Health to the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, the 2002 Senegal Water Charter, the 2008 Niger Water Charter, the 2012 Chad Lake Charter and the 2012 Treaty on Cooperation on the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Dniester River Basin also include these rights in a transboundary context. The recognition of the rights to water and sanitation in instruments of human rights law and international water law illustrates the increasing importance of this fundamental human right. 

Consequently, emphasizing access to water as a human right enables the displaced persons, regardless of their legal status and documentation, to obtain the entitlement, though they do not qualify as refugees. This is particularly important in the current situation linked to the fight against COVID-19. The next section explores the potential role that RBOs could play in this regard. 

The role of River Basin Organisations (RBOs) 

Climate change has been impacting both natural and human systems over the last decades (IPCC, 2014). Some river basins are already severely impacted by climate change, as is the case of the Senegal Basin, where the region over the last 30 years has been suffering from a long-lasting drought (Oyebande & Odunuga, 2010). Decrease of rainfall affects not only the river runoff and groundwater recharge but also the environment and local economies. It has already impacted the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa (Oyebande & Odunuga, 2010). It is expected that more river basins located in drought-prone areas will be impacted in the near future.

Transboundary climate change adaptation strategies need to be integrated into the water management at basin levels. Issues affecting a basin such as water scarcity, flooding, displacement, epidemics, environmental fragility have to be addressed in an integrated manner (World Bank, 2019) as transboundary waters create hydrological and economic interdependencies, linking people within and between countries (UN-Water, 2008). In some cases, an adaptation approach is already included in the management plan. However, it usually targets a specific problem, as is the case in the Dauria region, part of the Amur river basin, stretching across eastern Mongolia and northeastern China, where only the ecological integrity of the basin is taken into consideration, and not the overall climate change impact (MRC, 2014, p.18). 

The Senegal River Development Organization (in French Organisation pour la mise en valeur du fleuve Sénégal (OMVS)) has the mandate to improve livelihood in the basin and ensure the preservation of the ecosystem (Adams, 2000, p.5). It has taken measures to implement specific water management projects, such as the prevention of floods, construction of dams, and irrigation systems. However, this region has been impacted by lack of rainfalls and soil degradation, which combined with other factors such as agricultural policies, has, in turn, impacted small scale farmers leading to climate-induced displacement (Bleibaum, 2010, p.191). The same trend can be observed in the case of the Gambia River Development Organisation (in French Organisation pour la mise en valeur du fleuve Gambie (OMVG)). These examples illustrate the lack of planning at a basin level including not only water management but as well socio-economic factors and regional developments. Failure to ensure effective water management will enhance fragility and trigger conflict over water resources at a local or regional level (World Bank, 2019).

The COVID-19 crisis management highlighted the dependencies and the interconnections existing between various resources of vital necessity and basic services (such as water, sanitation, food, energy). It has also added more pressure on fragile contexts, in particular in conflict-affected countries or drought-prone areas with scarce water resources. In such a context, the Geneva Water Hub, a center of the University of Geneva specialized in hydrodiplomacy, believes it is important to strengthen cooperation and water governance mechanisms. In Senegal, the issue of climate induced displacement is not part of the mandate of OMVS but is dealt with at the state level by the riparian countries. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, financial support was provided by the OMVS to its member states, as the response was dealt with at the country level. However, the role of OMVS as mechanism of coordination between the various agencies operating at the domestic level should still be strengthened. 

However, as displacement is induced by many factors, such as climate change and access to water, there is an increasing need for transboundary cooperation to promote resilience and sustainable development (World Bank, 2019). RBOs’ primary focus is on the overall management of a shared basin and its resources (Schmeier, 2013, p. 83). However, climate change affects water needs and uses, and in most countries, agriculture is by far the largest water consumer (Goulden, Conway, and Persechino, 2009). Climate change adaptation thus needs to take into account resources management such as regional water scarcity/variability and the transboundary nature of many river basins. In order to develop and ensure stability at a regional level, RBOs need to adapt to new challenges to ensure their sustainable development (Goulden, Conway, and Persechino, 2009).  

In this regard, RBOs have a significant role to play in the future, including in terms of socio-economic development and reduction of vulnerability at the regional and local levels as they have the potential to affect the lives of millions positively through climate change adaptation plans, irrigation works, and provision of energy (Medinilla, 2018, p.6). Over the last years, climate change adaptation has opened new financing opportunities for African RBOs bringing opportunities for cooperation with the aim to promote economic and social inclusion (Medinilla, 2018, p.14). 

One way forward, as described by the International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO), is to strengthen the management of data for effective, sustainable and integrated water resources to ensure adequate adaptation to climate change by defining and implementing successful water policies to strengthen transboundary water cooperation (RIOB/UNESCO, 2018, p.8). Another is to enhance the mandate of RBOs and policymakers at country levels to integrate displacement (driven by water insecurity and that induced by increasing pressure on water resources) in water governance frameworks (IOM, 2018, p.6). The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), jointly with the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the Geneva Water Hub, is also working on developing innovative financial instruments based on blended finance arrangements to develop joint investment plans (Wennubst, et al., 2019), ensuring a socio-economic development at a regional level.

As water management and accessibility are at the heart of the health response to COVID-19, RBOs clearly should have a significant influence in response to pandemics and the effective implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-6 on Clean Water and Sanitation as part of the resilience approach at basin level to climate change. 

III. Final remarks and a way forward 

In the preceding discussions, it is illustrated that there is a link between climate change, in particular, water-related events, and displacement. Both water stress and excess could trigger the movement of people within and outside of their country. In those instances, climate displaced people face challenges regarding the enjoyment of their human rights, including the rights to water and sanitation. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that displaced people, including those displaced by climate change, are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to essential services, including water and sanitation, which is fundamental for preventing the spread of the virus. Those who cross borders face further challenges as they might not directly benefit from the international refugee protection regime. However, all displaced people are entitled to human rights, and any denial of access to water and sanitation for these persons is a flagrant violation of international law obligations. The rights of displaced people must be taken into account as an integral part of any effective public health and recovery response to COVID-19 (OHCHR, 7 April 2020).

As a way forward, first, it is high time that states, RBOs, and other international organizations, including international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and other multilateral development banks join hands to address the root causes of climate displacement and work towards the attainment of SDG-6. There is a need to take proactive measures to mitigate climate change impacts and ensure sustainable water resource management and fulfil vital human needs. Second, as human rights are universal and inalienable entitlements of everyone, the treatment of climate displaced people should always take this fundamental conception as a governing principle. To that end, effort should be made to emphasize, promote, and create awareness about such rights of climate displaced people, and mainstream it in policies and practices of international actors. Third, states, as the principal obligation bearers, should ensure access to water and sanitation without discrimination for climate displaced people within their jurisdiction. International organizations, including RBOs, IFIs, and the private sector need to support the states’ efforts through funding and other technical assistance. Such assistance must be guided by a human rights-based approach that ensures equality, meaningful participation, transparency, and accountability.


Additional readings 

Bleibaum, Frauke. Case Study Senegal: Environmental Degradation and Forced Migration in Environment, forced migration and social vulnerability. 2010, p.187-196.
Cullet, Philippe. Is Water Policy the New Water Law? Rethinking the Place of Law in Water Sector Reforms. IDS Bull. 2012, 43, 69–78
Geneva Water Hub (GWH). ‘Refugees and Access to Water: Challenges and Responses,’ Think-Tank Roundtable Report, February 2017. 
Guadagno Lorenzo, ‘Migrants and the COVID-19 pandemic: An initial analysis,’ International Organization for Migration, Migration Research Series No.60, 2020. 
Iceland Charles, ‘Water Stress is Helping Drive Conflict and Migration’, World Resource Institute, 25 September 2017.
Mach Eva. ‘Water and Migration: How Far Would You Go For Water?’, A Caritas in Veritate Foundation Report, 2017. 
Nagabhatla, Nidhi., Panthea Pouramin, Rupal Brahmbhatt, Cameron Fioret, Talia Glickman, K. Bruce Newbold, and Vladimir Smakhtin. ‘Water and Migration: A Global Overview’, United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), 2020. 
Oyebande, L. & Odunuga, S. ‘Climate change impact on water resources at the transboundary level in West Africa: the cases of Senegal, Niger and Volta Basins’. The Open Hydrology Journal, 2010, 4, p. 163-172. 
Rigaud K. Kumari, de Sherbinin Alex, Jones Bryan, Bergmann Jonas, Clement Viviane, Ober Kayly, Schewe Jacob, Adamo Susana, McCusker Brent, Heuser Silke, and Midgley Amelia. ‘Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration’, World Bank, Washington DC, 2018. 
Tignino Mara and Mach Eva, ‘Migration and Water Governance’, Migration, Environment and Climate Change Policy Brief Series Issue 2, Vol.4, 9 May 2018. 


About the authors 

Tadesse Kebebew is a researcher at the Platform for International Water Law of the Geneva Water Hub. He develops the follow-up activities related to the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure, focusing on the status of water in military manuals, a monitoring mechanism, and the topic of accountability. Parallel to his activities at the Geneva Water Hub, Tadesse is a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. He is also a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.' 



Caroline Pellaton holds a PhD in Earth Sciences from the University of Geneva. She joined the Geneva Water Hub in June 2018 as Corporate Operations Administrator. Her work consists of monitoring the achievements and implementation of the Geneva Water Hub projects as well as managing administrative issues. She is also in charge of the fundraising activities and donor relations. Over the last ten years, she worked as a country level water program manager in emergencies and post conflict environments in various contexts such as Sri Lanka, Niger, Republic of South Sudan, Central African Republic, Yemen and Jordan.  



Dr Mara Tignino is Reader at the Faculty of Law and the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva and Lead Legal Specialist of the Platform for International Water Law at the Geneva Water Hub. She is Adjunct Professor at the University Savoie Mont Blanc. Dr Tignino has been Visiting Professor at Renmin University of China, the University of Barcelona, the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali (LUISS) and the Catholic University of Lille. She was also a Visiting Scholar at the George Washington University Law School in Washington D.C. Dr Tignino acts as an expert and legal adviser for States and international organisations. She has given training workshops in Africa, Asia, Middle East and South America. She is a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Interest Group of “International Business and Human Rights” of the European Society of International Law (ESIL) and co-chair of the Interest Group on Water of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association. She holds a Ph.D. in international law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and an Habilitation à diriger des recherches (HDR) from the Faculty of Law of the University Jean Moulin Lyon 3. 


This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.