Migration for Sustainable Development

Click on a development sector or a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) and scroll down to explore its migration linkages, relevant Global Compact for Migration (GCM) Objectives, data and measuring tools, case studies and resources. 

Human mobility affects and is affected by all development areas: for example, healthy and educated migrants and displaced persons can more easily participate in and contribute to society and migrants with regular status have improved access to decent and safe work. Migration is a global phenomenon affecting all countries and its effective governance needs global partnerships.

To create the future we want and need, we must empower migrants to fulfil their development potential, which can, in turn, have positive ripple effects for communities locally, regionally and globally. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent our global effort to progress towards prosperous and healthy societies. Migrants have a critical role to help fulfil the promises of these Goals; indeed, SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) calls for the promotion of safe, orderly and regular migration. The Global Compact for Migration (GCM) sets out a roadmap to help us do exactly this. Read more about M4D and our approach.


Clean water and sanitation, also often referred to as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is considered a universal human right, since drinking water is an immediate need for human survival and poor sanitation can have serious public health consequences. Worldwide, one in three (2.2 billion) people do not have access to safe drinking water, 4.2 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation, and two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water (UN). Meanwhile, climate change continues to challenge communities’ access to safe, clean water, especially in the Global South.

Migration as a response to water deficits varies significantly based on country income, with residents of poor countries four times less likely to move relative to residents of wealthier countries (World Bank). Instead, households often send some members abroad to diversify income and support those left behind during times of water-related stress. In many places, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where 60 percent of the population lives in water-stressed areas, war, conflict, and unemployment are more influential drivers of migration (ibid). Climate change and weak governance can however exacerbate vulnerabilities and create tensions over water resources, leading to a vicious cycle of water insecurity and fragility.

The relationship between water, sanitation and migration is not straightforward and contain two basic layers:

  1. Water and sanitation resources (e.g. flooding, disasters, climate change, etc.) may drive migration: Recent studies have found that water deficits are linked to 10 percent of the increase in total migration within countries between 1970 and 2000. As climate change accelerates a global water crisis, mobility can be an adaptation strategy in response to droughts, flooding and other water-related disasters. By the end of this century, worsening droughts are projected to affect about 700 million people. But this may not necessarily lead to migration, especially where individuals have strong social networks and other assets to cope. 
  2. Water and sanitation services (e.g. access to clean water and sanitation, thirst, infrastructure) can enable safe migration: While migration may be driven by water resource issues, migration isn’t driven by a lack of water and sanitation services (ODI). But providing services can support successful migration – particularly for undocumented migrants and people in transit. Attaining SDG 6 and 'universal access' is not possible if we don’t include and respond to the needs of migrants and refugees, including the millions of forcibly displaced, their host communities and those living in overcrowded urban slums or in refugee camps. 

But the linkages between clean water, sanitation and migration don’t stop there. They are context-specific but also often cross-cutting with other sector areas such as:

  • Employment: Labor migrants who leave regions with lower rainfall and frequent dry shocks may possess lower educational levels and skills than other migrant workers, implying significantly lower wages and less access to basic services at their destination (World Bank). As sectors and enterprises are greened, many low- and high-skilled migrants that are employed in water- dependent sectors (agriculture, waste management) will require up-/re-skilling and social protection, and private sector actors have a large role to play. (In line with SDGs 1, 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10)
  • Governance: Well-managed ecosystems and service provision includes both host communities and migrants in decision-making processes. Water management systems require an awareness of pre-existing tensions, and considering the impacts of projects on local and mobile populations so as not to intensify or create new challenges. (In line with SDGs 6, 13, 14, 15, 16)
  • Environment and climate change: Water availability’s impact on mobility is likely to be hard to distinguish from other environmental changes (e.g. drought, flooding, decaying infrastructure/sanitation systems). By investing in drought-resilient and climate-adaptive agriculture, communities may be better prepared and less likely to be displaced. (In line with SDGs 9, 13, 14, 15)
  • Rural development: Countries most affected by water crises are usually in the Global South and dependent on agricultural labor. Rural livelihoods tend to rely on large quantities of water. When supplies are insufficient, people may move to find water or alternative economic opportunities, including seasonal labour migration from rural to urban areas during longer dry seasons (e.g. farming to construction). (In line with SDGs 1, 2, 14, 15)
  • Urban development: Policies and infrastructure needed to build water resilience are expensive, but a drought potentially reduces a city’s economic growth by up to 12 percent (World Bank). Urban water supplies are also under threat from rising heat stress and water scarcity. The inclusion of migrants and displaced populations in urban initiatives to address water scarcity and pollution and improve sanitation services is critical as they are often amongst the most vulnerable.  (In line with SDGs 3, 11 and 13)
  • Security: Water is more often a casualty of conflict rather than a reason for migration. Water infrastructure is frequently targeted during conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to this essential resource. Reducing conflict and protecting water and sanitation access points is crucial for reducing vulnerabilities that force people to move. Indeed, water scarcity has historically led more to cooperation than conflict (World Bank). (In line with SDGs 1, 9, 16)
GCM Objectives

Clean water and sanitation’s important role in migration governance is recognized primarily in Objective 2: Minimize Adverse Drivers, as well as Objective 15: Access to Basic Services. For a full list of Objectives relevant to environment and climate change, please see below and refer to the GCM Booklet and Migration Network Hub

gcm 2

Migration can be an adaptation strategy to long-term water scarcity. Resilience strategies, water-minimal agriculture and livelihoods opportunities and mainstreaming mobility into disaster preparedness and response can minimize drivers.

gcm 5

Joint cooperation can strengthen solutions for people compelled to leave due to water scarcity, including planned relocation, new visa opportunities and measures to address vulnerabilities.

GCM 15

Migrants at every step of the migratory journey must be provided equitable and sustainable access to water and sanitation in all communities. Investing in water supply and sanitation, education, health care and safe housing benefits everyone.

GCM 16

Migrants and displaced people may have innovative solutions to water and sanitation issues. Measures can be taken to include their ideas and specific needs to improve water and sanitation. 

GCM 18

Migrants leaving because of drought or flood may possess agricultural skills and need reskilling to fit new labor needs. Migrants work in WASH sectors, providing water and sanitation services to communities.

GCM 19

Migrant and diaspora skills can contribute to strengthening their host and home communities’ water and sanitation services, improving livelihoods options and exchanging innovative ideas.

GCM 20

Social and financial remittances can be channelled into local development projects that improve wells, taps, public latrines, irrigation systems etc., especially in communities fragile to climate change, drought and flooding. Remittances can help vulnerable families afford water.

GCM 22

Safety nets, such as cash and in-kind transfers, can help to protect communities and mobile people facing severe water shocks.

Data & Measuring Results
Infographic of visual human mobility and WASH, based in data around SDG 6


What SDG 6 targets are relevant for migration?

  • 6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all 
    • Including all migrants at all stages of the migrant lifecycle in efforts to improve access to safe and affordable drinking water.
    • Working towards equitably and sustainably improving access to water in all communities, including both migrants and host communities in these efforts. 
  • 6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations. 
    • Including all migrants at all stages of the migrant lifecycle in efforts to improve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene.
    • Working towards equitably and sustainably improving access to sanitation and hygiene in all communities, including both migrants and host communities in these efforts.
Infographic with Human Mobility and WASH data around SDG 6, specifically focusing on Azerbaijan as a case study
Case Studies

Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyer believes urban migration is an opportunity to be realized rather than a challenge to be overcome. Acting on this belief, Freetown is using the funds to expand its Waste Management Micro-Enterprise Program to 40 new enterprises to deliver waste collection services within informal settlements and to other Freetown residents.

Through this program expansion, the city ensures that more youth living in informal settlements, many of whom are rural migrants, access the opportunity to jointly improve their livelihoods and improve public health outcomes for many communities and the city. Successful applicants are provided with initial business investment support that includes a motorized tricycle cart, sanitation tools, business registration, training and business development mentoring. The income generated from the waste collection helps the entrepreneurs pay back 80 percent of the cost of equipment over the course of a year, which will in turn unlock funds for a new set of youth to participate in the program next year.

The program builds on gains made by 80 existing waste management micro-enterprises who, through Freetown’s support over the last year, are providing waste collection services to almost 30,000 households. 

Quote from Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone: all residents, especially migrants, have a role to play in helping Freetown emerge from this pandemic more equitable, more sustainable, and more prepared for the future.

Freetown was selected as a recipient of the inaugural Global Cities Fund for Inclusive Pandemic Response (GCF), a $1,000,000 initiative to respond to the unmet needs of cities as they support migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people (IDPs) during Covid-19. GCF is managed globally by the Mayors Migration Council.


Key resources on migration and SDG 6:

  • Ebb and Flow: Water, Migration, and Development (World Bank): This report examines the link between water and migration, and the implications for economic development, covering nearly half a billion people from 189 population censuses in 64 countries from 1960 to 2015. 
  • Migration and Water (IOM): Find all the latest on IOM’s work on migration and water, including the latest publications and research, on the Environmental Migration Portal.
  • Migration and Water Governance (IOM and Geneva Water Hub): This edition of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Policy Brief Series examines the nexus between migration and water governance and explores the potential synergies between both policy domains.
  • Water and Sanitation, Migration and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ODI): This briefing considers the impact of migration on a variety of WASH-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), chiefly SDG 6. While water and sanitation do not appear to drive migration, the process of migration can radically shape access to water and sanitation services – particularly for undocumented migrants and people in transit. 
  • Integrating Migration into Environment and Climate Change Programmes Toolkit (IOM): This toolkit was developed under the EU-funded Mainstreaming Migration into International Cooperation and Development (MMICD) Initiative to provide operational and user-friendly tools to help international cooperation and development actors to integrate migration into employment programmes and projects. 
  • Infographic: Human Mobility and WASH (IOM): This Infographic was developed by the M4SD Team in order to have a visual view of how migration and SDG 6 overlap. A more specific infographic (Infographic: Human Mobility and WASH - Azerbaijan Case Study) utilizes Azerbaijan as a case study.