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Desulfurization of Northern Bohemia had a great impact on migration


The quality of the environment significantly influences migration. This is the result of the research of the experts from the SYRI National Institute who analyzed changes of behavior in people living in Northern Bohemia in the 1990s. The improvement of the environment e.g. due to desulfurization reduced the level of emigration from heavily polluted villages by 24% in comparison to less polluted villages in the region. The findings are unique and can lead to better understanding of migration effects connected to the quality of the environment.

Northern Bohemia is a unique laboratory of migration processes. The landscape was heavily damaged by lignite mining and associated energy production. “The average yearly concentration of sulphur dioxide recorded in the 1980s surpassed even the value measured in Beijing in 2000 before the Olympic clean-up. The high concentrations of pollutants in the air influenced also the quality of life of the inhabitants. The average life expectancy in basin districts was by 2-3 years lower than in the rest of Czechoslovakia and it was mainly children who paid the price for their health,” as Štěpán Mikula, from the SYRI and Masaryk University, who led the research explains.

In the 1970s and 1980s people reacted naturally to the rapid environmental degradation by leaving the region. The communist government tried to address the depopulation with a system of incentives designed to keep the existing workforce in place and attract skilled workers to the region. “Exactly in their case the Communist Party in the mid 80s tried to introduce a system that blatantly resembled serfdom. Neither sugar nor the whip helped, and the depopulation of the region continued throughout the 1980s,” Mikula says adding that a change came only with the Velvet revolution and the program of desulfurization.

The yearly concentration of sulfur dioxide after desulfurization decreased across the region under the limits set by the hygiene norms. “Along with the improvement of the environment, desulfurization established a natural experiment which can help us observe how people migrate in relation to the improvement of the environment. The change in the behavior of the local people can be understood as a demonstrated preference for the life in clean environment. The change in the migration behavior was not, however, the same in villages across the entire region,” Mikula says.

Higher sensitivity to the improvement of the environment was shown by municipalities that held before desulfurization less amenities such as accessibility to schools, hospitals, cultural facilities, or government offices. “Similarly, desulfurization led to a higher decrease of the emigration rate in municipalities which were primarily inhabited by German inhabitants before the World War II. The community ties, which are in general weaker in the Sudetenland, and good amenities are then the factors that partly compensated for the negative effects of pollution and demotivated the inhabitants to decide to move out from the villages, before the onset of desulfurization,“ Mikula says.

The research by the scientists  from SYRI shows that the adoption of new environmental regulations in the 1990s not only improved the quality of the environment, but also convinced the residents to stop leaving the region. The situation connected to the improvement of the environment in Northern Bohemia is interesting also in an international context.  “Achieving unprecedentedly large and rapid environmental improvements through the use of new imported technologies has created a situation that allows us to identify the relationship between environmental pollution and migratory behaviour with greater precision and certainty," Mikula adds.


Štěpán Mikula, PhD.

Position: Senior researcher
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