Migration is often seen as an adaptive human response to adverse socio-environmental conditions, such as water scarcity. A rigorous assessment of the causes of migration, however, requires reliable information on the migration in question and related variables, such as, unemployment, which is often missing. This study explores the causes of one such type of migration, from rural to urban areas, in the Jiangsu province of China. A migration model is developed to fill a gap in the understanding of how rural to urban migration responds to variations in inputs to agricultural production including water availability and labor and how rural population forms expectations of better livelihood in urban areas. Rural to urban migration is estimated at provincial scale for period 1985–2013 and is found to be significantly linked with rural unemployment. Further, migration reacts to a change in rural unemployment after 2–4 years with 1% increase in rural unemployment, on average, leading to migration of 16,000 additional people. This implies that rural population takes a couple of years to internalize a shock in employment opportunities before migrating to cities. The analysis finds neither any evidence of migrants being pulled by better income prospects to urban areas nor being pushed out of rural areas by water scarcity. Corroborated by rural–urban migration in China migration survey data for 2008 and 2009, this means that local governments have 2–4 years of lead time after an unemployment shock, not necessarily linked to water scarcity, in rural areas to prepare for the migration wave in urban areas. This original analysis of migration over a 30-year period and finding its clear link with unemployment, and not with better income in urban areas or poor rainfall, thus provides conclusive evidence in support of policy interventions that focus on generating employment opportunities in rural areas to reduce migration flow to urban areas.