Local Responses to Climate Change and Disaster-Related Migration in Solomon Islands

Rebekah Ramsay, John Cox, Lachlan McDonald, Ruth Maetala, John Clemo, Darian Naidoo, and Sonya Woo


Communities in Solomon Islands are acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Eighty percent of the population live in coastal areas vulnerable to sea level rise, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events such as drought, tropical cyclones, and flooding. Most services, infrastructure, and agricultural production are also concentrated in these vulnerable coastal areas. Climate-related displacement due to natural disasters is already occurring, including relocation of whole communities from low-lying atolls to urban areas, as well as some rural-to-rural migration. 

This paper examines the ways in which communities in Solomon Islands are experiencing and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Specifically, the research addresses: (1) how local people understand the role of climate change and natural hazards in the decision to migrate; (2) the role of social capital and informal networks as a climate change adaptation strategy; and (3) how local people understand and navigate land access and relocation. The analysis draws on the results from research carried out in five communities in the Solomon Islands in 2021. The study adopted a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, including household surveys, key informant interviews, and focus group discussions. 

Main findings: 

  • Climate change and natural hazards exacerbate local vulnerabilities. Environmental vulnerabilities overlap with socioeconomic disadvantage, poverty, and gender inequalities. Climate change and disasters are among several drivers of migration, including social reasons (family unions, marriages, and disputes) and disparities in socioeconomic opportunities. Climate change also amplifies pre-existing vulnerabilities and disadvantages that affect migration decisions. 
  • Social capital plays a significant role in how people adapt and migrate in response to climate-related vulnerabilities. Solomon Islanders draw on their social capital, including strong and weak social ties, to negotiate climate-related migration. Informal social safety nets are an effective mechanism for sharing resources between and within locations. Migrants who relocated through family or relational ties to customary landowners had better resettlement outcomes than those who had relocated by other means. The challenges encountered during migration included the inability to meet basic material needs, access land for food gardens, and address insecure land tenure. Insufficient access to land represents a key structural barrier and cause of conflict for climate-impacted people seeking to relocate elsewhere. In response to these structural barriers, people managed land scarcity by mobilizing relationships with land owning groups on a temporary, incremental, and informal basis. 
  • Locally driven migration helps alleviate population pressure, but communities seek to maintain ongoing connection to customary land or “homeland”. People living in climate-impacted areas often migrate and relieve local population pressures but maintain connection with their “homeland”. Migration and displacement activities in response to a shock are often temporary. Most migrants expressed a desire to return to their homeland, maintained attachments to their homelands, and employed adaptive strategies that enabled ongoing physical connection to customary and ancestral lands. 

The authors identify several policy and programmatic implications: 

  • Responses to climate change should go beyond physical adaptation measures (for example sea walls, or “climate proofing” infrastructure) to more holistic community development approaches that can support both physical adaptations to climate change, as well as strengthening communities’ social resilience.  
  • Responses should build on communities’ existing adaptation strategies, such as temporary and permanent migration, and relying on social networks that may extend across multiple sites and with homeland and diaspora hubs.  
  • Adopting a relational, small-scale, and locally negotiated land access approach may be a more effective solution to the problem of land scarcity. 
  • Government and donor-funded adaptation initiatives, including planned relocations, may have unintended impacts if the role of social capital and informal networks is not understood or anticipated. 
  • Climate-related migration can cause intangible losses for communities whose collective identities and social capital are grounded in deep cultural connections to customary land or ancestral “homelands”.