CNN Photos

From nomad to climate refugee

“The nomadic people of Mongolia once lived a proud life,” says photographer Alessandro Grassani.

They moved from pasture to pasture, raising sheep and living off their milk and meat. But in 2011, severe winter weather killed 8 million head of livestock, essentially destroying the herders’ way of life.

These people are now known as climate refugees.

This new term refers to people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by natural disasters like droughts, higher sea levels and extreme weather. Left with nothing, they migrate to cities in hope of a better life. Often these refugees end up living on the outskirts of cities and form slums with no running water, sewers or electricity.

“The people have nothing and cannot afford to move to another country or have the language skills to prosper,” says Grassani.

Recent winters have wiped out massive numbers of livestock, destroying the lives of many nomadic people of Mongolia. These photos show the lives of three families, all living in extreme poverty.

While the geographical size of Mongolia is vast, the population is relatively small. About 3 million people live there — roughly the same as the state of Iowa. Half inhabit the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which is quickly growing larger due to people migrating from the countryside.

In Ulaanbaatar, the displaced nomads live in what is now known as the ger district. Ger, sometimes known as yurts, are tents and are usually the only belongings they have left. Many of these people have no other skills and minimal education.

There is very little support from the government or other organizations for these people. Some people may get about $12 per month from local government, but that is rare, says Grassani.

The problem of forced migration because of climate change is not limited to Mongolia. Grassani hopes to capture more images that show the human faces of climate change in places like Kenya and Bangladesh. He says his goal in photographing the lives of environmental migrants is to shed light on the human destruction caused by climate change.

- Callie Carmichael, CNN