Environmental Mobility and Mental Health in Indonesia

Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Forestry and Environmental Studies

First Advisor

Bell, Michelle


Millions of people are displaced each year following climate- and weather-related disasters. These numbers are expected to grow as the frequency and severity of sudden-onset disasters become more extreme under climate change conditions. Additional population relocation will likely result from gradual impacts of slow-onset climate change including sea-level rise and drought. Despite the magnitude of this weather- and climate-related mobility (residential displacement and migration) both today and projected for the future, there is relatively limited empirical data assessing who is most likely to move after exposure to disasters, where they will go, and how this movement will impact their health and wellbeing. This dissertation seeks to address these questions in four projects. I focus specifically on Indonesia, which is regularly exposed to ecological disasters across its ~17,000 islands and serves as an important setting to explore for environmental mobility. In the first (Chapter 2) and second projects (Chapter 3), I conducted the first studies, to my knowledge, that use self-reported data on the reason for a move (allowing study participants to select environmental or non-environmental causes) to investigate environmental mobility. First (Chapter 2), I investigated whether sociodemographic characteristics are associated with whether individuals relocate after exposure to environmental events. I found that those who had 12 years of education at the time of a disaster were 3.93 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.38, 11.20) times more likely to move for environmental reasons than those with less than 12 years of education, but those with more than 12 years of education were not more likely to move than those with less 12 years of education. Those in the mid-range sociodemographic brackets may be most likely to migrate after environmental events because they can afford relocation costs, but cannot afford to adapt in place. This indicates that the impact of environmental events on mobility may not be felt uniformly across the population. In the second project (Chapter 3), I again used self-reported reason for move from the IFLS to assess whether moves attributed to environmental causes differed from moves attributed to non-environmental causes. Specifically, I assessed the distance of relocation, the transition between rural and urban settings, the number of householders who made the move, and whether the move crossed a provincial border. Using generalized linear regressions, I found that moves that were reported as environmentally-driven were on average 60.5% shorter and involved 21.0% more movers per household than moves made for other reasons. These findings suggest that moves made for environmental reasons in Indonesia are often made over short distances and that they tend to be undertaken as a family (in contrast with individual relocation as an adaptive strategy, which has been observed elsewhere). In order to assess the impact of this mobility on health outcomes, I next designed a mixed-methods study in Banjarnegara, Indonesia to investigate landslide-related displacement and mental health. In the third project (Chapter 4), I conducted in-depth interviews with 21 individuals who were displaced by landslides between 2014-2018 in Banjarnegara. I used a phenomenological approach to analyze these interviews and found that while landslides are often over in minutes, their impacts on mental health, livelihood, and community and family dynamics may be felt for years to come. I found that landslide-displacement took place over three semi-discrete periods: (1) the time immediately following the landslide, (2) the period in which participants lived in temporary housing while waiting for their permanent homes to be habitable, and (3) after participants relocated to their permanent housing. Across these three periods participants endured profound grief, they experienced challenges to their interpersonal relationships, navigated strains on livelihood and vocation, and managed changes to their long-term plans and futures. Participants’ experiences of mental health were deeply intertwined with their livelihoods and connections to land and community, such that these interrelations cannot be disentangled. The findings from this study highlight the value of qualitative approaches as a way to avoid a medicalization of lived-experiences of disaster-displacement. I also identify key intervention points across the three stages of landslide-displacement through which mental wellbeing may be supported. The results from this study can be used to inform disaster preparedness programming and relocation plans. In the fourth project (Chapter 4), I conducted in-depth questionnaires with 420 respondents in Banjarnegara who experienced landslides between 2014-2018. I used a novel 6-item measure that was created in collaboration with the local community to assess change in mental wellbeing (comparing before and after landslide exposure) between those who relocated after landslide exposure and those who stayed. Those who were displaced were more likely than those who were not displaced to report perceived increases in economic stability (3.06, 95% CI: 1.45, 6.46), optimism (4.01, CI: 1.87, 8.61), safety (2.71, CI: 1.44, 5.10), religiosity (1.92, CI: 1.03, 3.65), and closeness with community (1.90; CI: 1.10, 3.33) after landslides compared to before their first landslide exposure during the study period. Additionally, more frequent landslide exposures were associated with reduced odds of relocation, but more severe landslides were associated with increased odds of relocation. These findings highlight the potential mental health burden among those left behind after landslides. Further, the use of a community-informed measure for mental wellbeing can inform future global research work on environmental mobility and health that is specific to the needs of local communities. Together these projects advance scientific knowledge on climate- and weather-related mobility and associated mental health impacts. The findings from this work suggest that environmental disasters neither have uniform impacts on mobility nor on mental health outcomes. The projects presented here lay groundwork for future studies on disasters, displacement, and health, and can be used to inform policy to better support mental health after disasters.

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