Environmental migrants: the last illusion. Kenya, Nairobi

Alessandro Grassani


In 2008, for the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. Cities will grow even larger due to climate change and to environmental migrants: people who escape from environmental stresses and look for chances of a better life in the city of their own countries. However, once they get there, because of their lack of resources, education and opportunities, their dream of a favourable future turns into the last of their illusions. In 2050, the Earth will have to face the trauma depicted by 200 million environmental migrants, who are destined to become the new humanitarian emergency of the planet in the next few decades

The Horn of Africa is one of the areas most affected by the climate change and by the process of environmentally driven migration. Desertification is advancing relentlessly to the border between Kenya and Ethiopia bringing with it armed conflicts over grazing land, as well as drought and famine.

Among the tribes living around the area of Turkana in Kenya, the number of cattle a man owns measures his wealth. The absence of rain decimated the animals and the farmers are constantly engaged in internal clashes for the control of water resources and grazing lands, which are becoming more and more limited. The fear of tribal conflicts and the lack of prospects have been forcing many Kenyans to look for socio-economic security in the capital, Nairobi. However, once they settle there, their hopes vanish in the slums, those shantytowns where the population doubles together with extreme poverty. Here the circle ends: the supply of safe water and basic sanitation is insufficient and health conditions become inhumane.

Kenya is the last section of my long-term project “Environmental migrants: the last illusion” started in 2011 and including two more chapters: Ulan Bator – Mongolia and Dhaka – Bangladesh.

My intention is to continue to narrate the stories of those people, families, communities, whose life has been disrupted by the ‘freaks’ of nature as well as the new social dynamics and creative strategies emerging from these upheavals. Moreover, with this project, I would like to cross the borders of the world of photography and serve the purposes of social awareness by contributing to the international debate around environmental migration and unfair urbanization.

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  • Kenya, Turkana Region. A shepherd of the Turkana tribe with his light machine-gun, looking for grazing land for his flock, along the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, in proximity of the Todonyang village.

  • Kenya, Turkana Region. A mass grave where catholic priests of the Saint Paul Mission have buried about a hundred victims of tribal fights for the control over grazing land and water supplies around the Todenyang village, along the borders between Kenya and Ethiopia. In this area Kenya’s Turkana tribe and Ethiopia’s Marille tribe fight on a daily basis. A notice on a cross that says “28 people”: it indicates the number of people that have been buried and that have died in the course of a single ferocious fight.

  • Kenya, Turkana Region, Lobei village. Loduung Elimlin, a 50 years old shepherd from the Turkana tribe, photographed with his machine-gun. He’s been involved in many fights with the neighbouring Pokot tribe for the control over the limited quantity of grazing land and water supplies. He’s been shot off twice; the first time on his hand (he’s lost two fingers), the second time on his arm.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. A boy walking out of a hut with videogames in the slum of Kibera.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. Rukia, 28 years old, pensive on the bed in her hut in the Kibera slum.Rukia has been living in Kibera since she emigrated from the Turkana region because of weather changes and drought. With the passing of the years, as droughts grew worse, the animal number halved, tribal fights increased, for the control over the rough grazing land along the borders between Kenya and Ethiopia. Fear for tribal fights, and drought led Rukia to immigrate to Nairobi.

  • Ethiopian Kenyan border. The inhabitants of Seis village burning brushwood and covering it with ground to create smoke – they are thus trying to turn away the nauseating smell of the carcasses of animals that are dead because of the drought and that lie around the village.

  • Ethiopian-Kenyan border. In the village of Seis a shepherd of the Marille tribe skins a cow that have just died because of the drought – he will use this as a bed.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. Rose and her two kids, in the hut where they live in Kibera. Rose, 34 years old. She is from the Amagoru village, in the Turkana province, one of the areas that suffered the most from the drought. She decided to immigrate to Nairobi with her husband and their six children after all her animals have died of hunger and thirst. A few months after she arrived in the Kibera slum, her husband left her by herself: he didn’t want to live in such a misery. Rose was left alone with six children to feed: the youngest of them is 2 years old, the oldest is 13. Rose only has occasional jobs and her kids often need to pick up metal bits in the Nairobi landfills, and sell them to help their mom.

  • Ethiopian-Kenyan border. A shepherd of the Turkana tribe with his light machine-gun, was looking for grazing land for his flock but suddenly he has spotted a possible enemy from the Ethiopian tribe of the Marilla and he is preparing to fight.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. A man sleeps lying on the floor. Mathare slum is in the background, with its distinctive smoke of burnt rubbish, which saturates the air day and night. Mathare is Nairobi’s second slum; 500,000 people live here, in an area where iron huts alternate with buildings with rooms that host tens of people.

  • Kenya, Turkana Region, Lobei village. The picture shows Edipo, 23 years old, from the Turkana tribe. Edipo has a serious deformity, which was caused by a night attack by the Pokot tribe to the Nakwapetet village, where about fifty people used to live. The Pokot fired and shot wildly; a lot of people died while Edipo was mangled.

  • Kenya, Turkana Region. A drained water well in a territory which is almost totally deserted, it is the only spring of drinking water for thousands of people. Fear for tribal fights for the control over the limited quantity of grazing land and water supplies, the drought and the lack of future perspectives led many people leaving the region and immigrate to the slums of Nairobi.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. A view of the slum of Kibera where many environmental migrants fleeing their lands because of climate changes and drought go to live. According to a study by UNHABITAT, about 74% of environmental migrants living in Nairobi arrived between 1991 and 2008, in conjunction with the embitterment of weather conditions, drought, and floods that constantly hit Kenya’s rural areas.  

  • Kenya, Nairobi. Sharon pensive in her iron hut in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. The drought, which year after year halved her harvest of fruit and vegetables, has forced her to abandon her village. She immigrated to the city with her two kids where she settled in an iron hut in Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, where about one million people live in inhuman hygienic conditions.

  • Kenya, Nairobi. A daily life scene in the cramped streets of the slum of Kibera where many environmental migrants fleeing from the countryside because of climate changes and drought go to live.