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Exiled by the Environment

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The Tsamba family lost nearly 20 sheep over two cold winter days in 2011. They live on the edge in Mongolia's Arkhangai Province, struggling through harsh winters alongside their herd of sheep. Severe winter conditions, known as dzud, have been responsible for the deaths of half the family's once 2,000-strong herd over the past three winters.

In the winter of 2009-10, Mongolia’s characteristically harsh climate became too much even for its native animals. About eight million cattle died, and the country experienced what could be described as a crash in the livestock market. Thousands of herders lost everything.

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Erdene Tuya’s three-year-old son, Tuvchinj, hugs a lamb. The Tsamba family struggles through harsh winters alongside their herd. Severe winter conditions, known as dzud, have been responsible for the deaths of half the family’s once 2,000-strong herd of sheep over the past three winters. Recently, in search of warmer pastures, the Tsambas moved from Bulgan Province in the north to this region near a central Mongolian village called Ulziit.

When photographer Alessandro Grassani read about that devastating winter, now known as the White Death, he decided that the story of people affected by extreme and unpredictable weather was too common to go unexamined. On a trip to Mongolia he documented the “before and after”—people struggling to stick it out in rural areas and people who had already lost everything and fled to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where almost half of 1.3 million residents live in crowded, informal settlements.

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A view of Ulaanbaatar over the shoulder of an intoxicated man. The capital’s population has doubled in the past two years, expanding outward in a haphazard sprawl, and many inhabitants live in slums known as the Gher District. High levels of unemployment and poverty await herders who abandon rural areas and arrive in the city, untrained in any skills necessary for urban jobs.

Sharing the plight of environmental migrants—people who have to flee their land because of dramatic and devastating changes in the environment—became an obsession for Grassani. He traveled on to Bangladesh, Kenya, and Haiti, each a country dealing with a unique climate crisis, each with a group of people cast off of their land, away from their traditions, and into crowded urban centers.

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Cattle farmers cut grass for their animals on what was once an inhabited island called Gazura. It’s now submerged by the Meghna River in the Ganges Delta, Bangladesh.
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A 26-year-old shepherd from the Turkana tribe in Kenya was killed in a fight against a shepherd from the Marille tribe. Only five days after his death, his skull is all that’s left of his body, which was eaten by wild animals. Insufficient and arid grazing land has been the cause of fighting between shepherds of different tribes.
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A man bathes on the shore of Haiti’s Lake Azuei. The growth rate of Lake Azuei (and the neighboring Lake Enquirillo in the Dominican Republic) is unprecedented. The size of the lake has almost doubled in the past ten years, destroying and submerging homes and farms. The ghostly trunks of dead palm trees are all that remain.

In Mongolia, it’s extreme cold. In Bangladesh and Haiti, it’s floods and rising sea levels, in Kenya desertification and tribal clashes over the control of water. These situations cast people out of a newly uninhabitable countryside and into poor living conditions in the “booming slums” of capital cities, which Grassani calls “ground zero for environmental migrants today.”

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Drought caused Sharon’s harvest of fruits and vegetables to decrease year after year. Eventually she was forced to abandon her village and move into an iron hut in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, with her two children.

This isn’t an issue that’s going to go away. The International Migration Organization says that most studies estimate there will be 200 million people in this situation by 2050. While environmental migrants aren’t recognized by international law like refugees of war, Grassani, who has photographed both war and climate change, draws parallels between the issues:

“Man is responsible for both of them. In both cases people suffer because they lose their villages, their lands, and their families. It doesn’t matter if it is a bomb which destroys and kills your family or if it is a hurricane, flood, or drought that force you off your land and kill your child because there is no water to drink and nothing to eat. The only difference is that we can’t fight against nature—we have already lost this war if we don’t react very soon.”

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In search of water for themselves and their animals, nomadic shepherds of the Turkana tribe dig in what used to be a riverbed.
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A child paddles her homemade raft on Bangladesh’s Gulshan Lake, which separates the slum of Korail from the homes of the wealthy in Dhaka. Between 35,000 and 70,000 people live in Korail.
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Due to the growing demand for sand used in construction in Port au Prince and other Haitian cities, mines are abundant. Land exploitation, together with the soil erosion and deforestation endemic in Haiti, make the country very vulnerable to the effects of climate change and extreme weather events.

Grassani doesn’t believe the climate migrants he’s met will be able to return to their homes. The places he’s working in, he says, “don’t have the resources to invest in alternative development policies in the areas hit by climate change.”

But despite dismal projections, he continues exploring these tragedies, and, like a visual prophet, sharing them with the world in the hopes that people will see and react. After all, he has a daughter who is almost two years old. “I often think about what the world will be like when she becomes an adult, and of course I worry about it,” he says. “This project is my own contribution to our society. This is my reaction. This is what I am able to do to awaken consciences.”

See more of Alessandro Grassani’s work about environmental migration on his website.

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