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Adapting to climate change: Building resilience among Zavkhan Province herders in Mongolia

A female herder leading a migration using traditional camel transportation, Tsetsen-Uul soum, Zavkhan province. Photo: UNDP Mongolia

Zavkhan province, situated in the western region of Mongolia, experiences an extreme climate. Winters in the region have seen temperatures drop as low as -32°C, with recorded lows of -56°C in some areas. In contrast, the average summer temperature reaches 21°C and above.

Accelerating climate change, however, is making conditions even more extreme. Between 1940 and 2021, the average annual temperature increased by between 2.4 and 3.1°C, while precipitation levels dropped by -15.4 to -1.1 mm.

Climate change has also heightened the frequency and scale of climate-related disasters, including droughts, snow and dust storms, and floods.
At the same time, an increasing livestock population has played a role in overgrazing, which in turn is leading to a decline in the quality and productivity of livestock – over the past two decades, the livestock population in Zavkhan province has surged by 1.9 times, while pasture degradation has reached a staggering 50.8 percent.
The cumulative impacts of overgrazing, droughts, and dzuds have heightened the vulnerability of herders, especially those from households with limited livestock, small families, and female-led households, posing a significant threat to their livelihoods. 
Each year, around 50 households from Tsetsen-Uul soum (a sub-provincial administrative unit) in Zavkhan province embark on a migration with 60-70 thousand livestock to seek more hospitable grasslands, only to return to their homeland in the spring. This migration is becoming increasingly frequent predominantly driven by natural disasters such as droughts, dzuds, and the shortage of livestock pasture.
The herders undertake their migration using traditional camel transportation, traversing roughly 25 kilometers of desert terrain that stretches alongside the Hung River to the north in Urgamal soum, Zavkhan province.
One of the representatives among these herders is Tsogzol J., a herder from Sangin Dalai bagh in Tsetsen-Uul soum. She has called this soum home for over two decades, having lived here since childhood. 
"In recent years, we've witnessed swift changes in the weather. Winters have grown colder, and spring now bears a resemblance to winter in terms of its coldness." - Tsogzol J. 
Tsogzol J., herder from Sangin Dalai bagh, Tsetsen-Uul soum. Photo: UNDP Mongolia
This year, the severe winter conditions necessitated a desert migration. Such migrations present formidable challenges for herders, as the absence of vehicles leaves traditional camel carriage transportation as their sole option, demanding rapid movement with livestock across the desert terrain.
Well-fed livestock can travel the desert in a single day, whereas those in poor health may require up to two days. If crossing the desert proves impossible, herders have the option to embark on a month-long migration journey to find more suitable grazing lands.  Female-headed herder households are particularly vulnerable. 
"In general, a herder's life is demanding, and our existence revolves around our livestock. During the severe winter of 2018, my husband and I undertook a desert migration." - Tsogzol J. 
Yaks on pastureland covered in snow, Tsagaanchuluut soum, Zavkhan province. Photo: UNDP Mongolia
We encountered many challenges, both of us having to handle tasks like separating the large and small animals and taking turns to start a fire, keeping the animals warm during the cold winter nights. When we reached the Otor (migration) area, he improvised a makeshift shelter using a car cover and a few sticks. Unfortunately, some of the animals were inadvertently crushed and perished when they sought refuge upon returning home to seek warmth.”
During that year, we had to leave behind around 200 of the 500 livestock we owned. After that, my husband passed away, leaving me to manage the livestock on my own. During that period, my daughter was a student, and my son was working in Ulaanbaatar. Given the challenges of herding alone, my son decided to come home and live with me. I've been diligently passing on herding skills to him, emphasizing the joy of herding in favorable weather. I firmly believe that herding in pleasant conditions is far more preferable than enduring the harsh winter conditions.
- Tsogzol J. 
Research indicates that over the past 70 years, 12 major dzuds have led to the loss of 40-50 million livestock in Mongolia. The detrimental effects of dzuds have a profound impact on the livelihoods and well-being of herder households. In the months following a dzud, communities face diminished income, food scarcity, increased illness, and higher rates of school dropout among children.
To address these challenges, the project 'Improving Adaptive Capacity and Risk Management of Rural Communities in Mongolia' (known as ADAPT), funded by the Green Climate Fund and implemented by the Government of Mongolia with support from UNDP, is working in Zavkhan, Dornod, Sukhbaatar, and Khovd provinces of Mongolia. 
The project is supporting the Government in strengthening its capacity to develop seasonal and long-term climate change forecasts that will allow them to move beyond the short-term emergency response through improved weather forecasts and climate predictions required for climate resilient planning and preparedness. With improved data and forecasting ability, the Government will be able to conduct impact estimation, risk reduction, and response scenarios to make reliable and informed decisions to address herder`s needs.
Furthermore, the project is assisting the local governments in identifying the areas most vulnerable to climate change through improved use of climate data and analysis, future forecasts, and implementing ecosystem-based adaptation measures on the ground with the participation of local community groups to improve preparedness in the event of extreme weather events. Ecosystem-based adaptation measures are specifically designed to yield a positive impact on the environment. These measures harness the power of nature to confront the impacts of climate change, all the while improving the resilience and readiness of herders to tackle climate-related challenges. This, in turn, mitigates their vulnerability to disaster risks.
The key outcome: to improve herders' capacity to implement these nature-based solutions as a sustainable solution for better livelihoods.

View the original on UNDP Mongolia's website here.

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