Environmental migration is like an unexploded device: in the not too distant future, the entire planet will have to face the economic and social burden of its consequences. By 2050, one in 45 people will be an environmental migrant—200/250 million people in total: today there are already tens of millions (source, IOM and UN). Ninety percent of these 200/250 million migrants live in developing countries and they will not “land” in the richer nations, but will look for new sources of income in the urban areas of their home countries, which are already overcrowded and often extremely poor. In 2008, for the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas and cities will grow even larger due to climate change and to environmental migrants (source: IOM and UN). This long term project focuses on this under-explored but looming issue. My research goal is to offer a glimpse on how our planet and cities are changing for the worse and to understand the personal narratives of this target migratory population, to document and tell their stories in order to disclose the devastating social impact of environmentally-driven migration from rural to urban areas. Mongolia, Bangladesh, Kenya and Haiti are some of the countries most hit by the phenomenon of environmental migration (source: IOM, International Organization for Migration). I have focused on these geographical areas in order to tell about the various forms that climatic changes can take on a global level. In my story, I use one narrative pattern: in every country I compare the stories of people who struggle against environmental adversity in the countryside with the poor living conditions of the environmental migrants packed into the booming slums of capital cities. This is ground zero for environmental migrants today—a situation which will only become more and more critical in the years to come.
MONGOLIA, ULAN BATOR
In 2010, during one of the harshest winters, more than 8 million sheep, cows, yaks and camels died in Mongolia. More than 20,000 herdsmen had no other choice but to migrate towards the Capital, Ulan Bator, which has doubled its population in the last 20 years.
In Ulan Bator, I told the stories of three families recently resettled in the Gher district – the main slum of the city – from the most isolated regions of Mongolia after losing their herds and livelihoods because of hard winters. In Arkhangai province, I’ve spent several days with the Tsamba’s, a family who fled from severe winter conditions, responsible for the death of half the family’s once 2.000 strong herd over the past three winters.
Kenya’s pastoral population has been among the hardest hit by climate change in Africa. Droughts and wars between different pastoral groups seeking pasture and water for their animals are pushing many Kenyans dreaming of a better future towards Nairobi. According to a 2009 UN-Habitat, in the last 20 years, the numbers of environmental migrants arrived to Nairobi increased from 26% to 74%.
In the district of Turkana (Kenya), I’ve witnessed the hard living conditions faced by the tribes of the area. They’ve lost most of their livestock and crops because of the recurrent droughts and famines. In such a resource-constrained setting, bloody tribal conflicts are sparking as communities fight for limited grazing land and water. This need for new sources of livelihood and fear of being involved in tribal conflicts forced many to leave their native lands to settle in the overpopulated slums of Nairobi.
Bangladesh is one of the countries more seriously affected by climate change. Dhaka, its capital, has a population of 14 million which is expected to increase to 50 million by 2050. Dhaka has over 300,000 newcomers entering the city each year. Many of them are environmental migrants.
In Dhaka I documented the stories of 5 families who, because of environmental issues, moved from rural areas to Kawran bazar and Korail, two of the biggest slums of the city. I also visited the poorest communities living in the districts of Dacope, Satkhira and Begherhat where people are used to face floods and cyclones and to live for several months a year under the water.
HAITI, PORT AU PRINCE
Haiti is one of the world’s most endangered places vis-a-vis climate change. According to the UN and IOM, as drought, cyclones, hurricanes, floods become more frequent, their impact will be amplified specifically in Haiti by the country’s existing environmental degradation. Indeed, Haiti is almost completely denuded of trees, making Haiti’s environment one of the most fragile in the world. This arboreal destruction has significantly reduced the land’s ability to absorb the effects of extreme weather events and manifestations of climate change. The vulnerability of the country to natural disasters has triggered waves of internal migration from rural to urban areas. In Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital and largest city, half of the residents were not born there and the overcrowded city continues to serve as the main destination for thousands of environmental migrants every year.