Up to a third of Mongolians live as nomads, but that lifestyle is increasingly under threat. Rampant desertification is destroying the grassland where nomads graze their animals, meaning many are being forced to move to cities, where they don’t belong.
“Nomadic life has been central to traditional Mongolian culture throughout history,” says Daesung Lee, a Paris-based photographer. “They depend on their vast, open land for survival. This is increasingly difficult due to serious changes.”
More than three-quarters of Mongolian territory has been affected by encroaching deserts to some degree, according to government figures. Hundreds of lakes and rivers have dried out, while many settlements have been covered with sand.
Lee testifies to the changes in an unusual way: through before-and-after shots in the same pictures. Nomads pose in front of photos of what the land used to look like, with the actual scenery in the background. “The project recreates the museum diorama [a 3-D model] with actual people and their livestock in a real place that has been desertified,” he says.
Climate change is the main factor. Between 1940 and 2007, Mongolia’s temperatures rose by more than 2.1°C. At the same time, rainfall levels have been dropping. The government blames 40% of the desertification on natural causes; the rest on man-made causes.
“The traditional Mongolian nomadic lifestyle might only exist in a museum in the future,” Lee says.