A Toolbox: Planning Relocations to Protect People from Disasters and Environmental Change

Posted on: 3/18/2021 - Updated on: 8/18/2022

Posted by

Kathryn Braddock


Disasters and environmental change have always affected the habitats in which people live. In extreme cases, such as riverbank erosion, the physical space where people live simply disappears and people have no option but to move elsewhere. In other cases, livelihoods, properties, or public services are damaged or destroyed to the extent that inhabitants perceive that they must move to find an adequate place to live. And there are also cases where people continue to live in places where their lives, property, and wellbeing are at risk—whether because of sudden-onset disasters (such as flooding or earthquakes) or the slow degradation of living conditions (such as drought or sea-level rise)—and governments make the decision to relocate people in order to protect them. Climate change is likely to accelerate the pressures on habitats and governments are likely to consider Planned Relocations as a means to reduce disaster risk or to adapt to climate change. And yet, Planned Relocation also carries risks for those it is intended to benefit, including the disruption of livelihoods and loss of income, socioeconomic networks and cultural heritage.

Recognizing the gap in knowledge on Planned Relocations despite their widespread use in some contexts, through a series of international meetings held between 2011 and 2015, a group of States, international organizations and experts developed Guidance on Planned Relocations.  This Guidance, published in 2015, provides overarching principles for States and other actors to plan and implement Planned Relocations to protect people from disasters and environmental change. The Guidance underlines that Planned Relocations are complex, multidimensional processes. Planned Relocations should normally be a last resort and adopted only when other alternatives are not possible. When it is needed, it should be carefully planned and involve the participation of affected people. While there are certain general principles that carry across all Planned Relocations, the way in which decisions are made and implemented will depend on the particular national and local contexts, the available timeframe, and the underlying triggers.

The background research, which analyzed and highlighted lessons from past experience, and informed the development of the Guidance, suggests there are many things that can go wrong.  While it is important to have principles, it is also essential to translate them into good practice.


This Toolbox begins to address this need. It identifies five cross-cutting elements that repeatedly surfaced in lessons from prior experience. These elements are relevant to all Planned Relocations:

  1. Establishing and complying with an appropriate legal framework;
  2. Understanding and addressing the needs and impacts of Planned Relocations on affected populations;
  3. Providing information to, undertaking consultation with, and ensuring the participation of, affected populations;
  4. Understanding and addressing complexities related to land issues; and
  5. Undertaking monitoring and evaluation, and ensuring accountability.

Experience also suggests that these five elements should inform and guide decision-making at all three key stages of a Planned Relocation:

  1. Decision: Making the decision to undertake Planned Relocation of groups or communities;
  2. Plan: Developing a plan for Planned Relocation; and
  3. Implementation: Implementing the plan, including measures: (a) pending physical relocation; (b) during physical relocation; and (c) in the longer-term following physical relocation.

In this context, Part II of this Toolbox begins by discussing the five cross-cutting elements that need to be incorporated into each of the different stages of Planned Relocations. Under each element, the Toolbox includes a checklist of issues to consider. Part III then discusses each of the three key decision-making stages. Under each stage, in addition to a checklist of issues to consider, the Toolbox also highlights some potential challenges. Throughout the text, examples are drawn from case studies to illustrate how governments have dealt with particular issues; these cases are drawn from the relatively small published literature on planned relocations and have not been systematically evaluated.


This Toolbox, developed by Georgetown University, United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and International Organization for Migration (IOM) in close cooperation with the World Bank and UN University, seeks to provide concrete suggestions for States and other actors who are contemplating or planning to relocate people in order to protect them from disasters and environmental change.

Managing Organizations

Georgetown University, United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and International Organization for Migration (IOM)