Impacts of a changing climate on Mongolia’s nomadic herder
Mongolia has experienced a 2.1-degree Celsius increase in average air temperatures over the past 70 years, making it one of the countries most affected by climate change. This changing climate has had adverse effects on vital sectors such as agriculture, particularly animal husbandry, as well as the natural ecosystem requiring urgent and timely actions. As of 2021, the assessment of desertification and land degradation in Mongolia reveals that 77% of the land is degraded due to overgrazing and climate change.
Additionally, the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards including harsh winters (dzud), drought, snowstorms and dust storms are increasing. Comprising nearly 30% of the population and relying heavily on livestock and natural resources for their livelihood, nomadic herders are extremely vulnerable to these impacts signifying the urgent need for enhancing their risk management capacity as an adaptation priority for Mongolia.
Let’s explore how Mongolian nomadic herders and the very life as-they-know-it are being challenged by climate change and how they are striving to adapt to the ever-changing climate from Narangerel and Ariuntuya’s household – one of the 300 thousand herder households in Mongolia.
Narangerel and Ariuntuya are champion herders in Ulziit soum (sub-provincial unit) of Arkhangai province of Mongolia. Narangerel is also a celebrated wrestler and racehorse trainer.
Together, they look after over 1,000 animals in their herd including sheep, goat, cow and horse which is a significant undertaking for their family of six.
The birthing season and the task of caring for malnourished animals after a harsh winter make spring the most challenging time for many herders.
Every member of the household, including their sons and eldest daughter, is occupied with caring for the animals both the weaker ones and newborns starting their day before 6 a.m. and ending it after 10 p.m. Ariuntuya says, “When our children get home on the weekends from school, they are huge help for us but when they are in school during weekdays, we become very busy and shorthanded.”
Unlike the city residents, this household or Mongolian nomadic herders don’t have weekends off. It is a 7-day routine all around the year.
Over their 30 years of herding livestock, they have noticed a significant and challenging change in recent years - the accelerated pace of climate change. Narangerel says, "Predicting seasonal changes has become increasingly difficult. For instance, by May, we should already see the emergence of new green grasses and vegetation, which are crucial for our herds to regain strength after losing up to 30% of their body weight during winter. However, this year in May, we still haven't seen the grasses, making things very challenging."
Indeed, the animals are very weak, and landscape is still plain yellow with little to no vegetation for the animals to graze. Every morning, Narangerel would help the weak animals to stand up and while Ariuntuya together with their daughter and sons feed them as the animals can’t leave for pasture themselves yet. Even if they manage to reach the pasture, grass is still yet to come.
Narangerel further added, "We are also seeing significantly warmer temperatures in December and January, but unusually cold temperatures in March and April compared to the past. This unpredictability makes planning extremely challenging for us." Sadly, these patterns are becoming increasingly common causing difficulties for many herders. This year alone, certain regions of Mongolia experienced temperatures as high as +5.5 degrees Celsius in January on some days.
One of the major challenges herders are facing in recent years is drying of the nearby rivers, springs and streams forcing them to rely on wells which are shared by everyone in the surrounding area which is usually around 10-15 herders’ households and 4,000-5,000 animals daily.
Narangerel explains that in the event of water depletion or operational issues with the wells, the herders are left with no choice but to travel approximately 10 kilometers to the nearest river to provide water for their animals. This round trip to the river consumes an entire day.
One effective solution to tackle this challenge is the protection and fencing of springs, with the support of the UNDP's ENSURE project. This project is funded by the Global Environment Facility and has been assisting the local community for several years. According to the locals, a spring that had almost dried up two years ago due to the presence of herds of animals blocking the spring source, has now made a remarkable recovery since it was fenced. It now runs for hundreds of meters and has even formed two small lakes along the way. This rejuvenated spring now provides abundant water not only for the people and animals in the area but also for the local wildlife.
The combination of harsh winter followed by delayed vegetation in spring has inflicted significant losses upon many herders. As reported by locals, some herders in the surrounding area have suffered the loss of 60-70% of their livestock this year. The frequent presence of animal carcasses serves as a stark reminder of the extent of the impact. Reportedly, the nationwide animal losses have reached nearly 500 thousand as of March 2023, dealing a severe blow to the livelihoods of thousands of nomadic herders.
The livelihoods of herders are heavily dependent on their livestock, particularly through the sale of cashmere, meat, wool, and hides. However, in recent years, many are losing their herds at an unprecedented rate due to extreme weather conditions resulting from climate change and land degradation amplified by overgrazing of pastures by the staggering number of over 70 million animals.
Consequently, many herders now agree to reduce their herd size and focus on the quality of their animals. Moreover, many are also seeking to diversify their income sources to reduce their livelihood dependency on the herd size. One prominent alternative that has emerged is tourism. Mongolia's nomadic culture is a captivating attraction for foreign tourists, and herders possess significant potential to benefit from this growing interest.
Narangerel and Ariuntuya are reaping the benefits of the "Ger and Nature" ecotourism initiative by UNDP. This initiative, funded by UN PAGE, aims to promote community-based eco and cultural tourism. As custodians of the nomadic lifestyle and culture, herders are the primary beneficiaries of this programme.
Mongolian herders often rely on an excessive number of plastic containers to store their food and water, leading to health issues as they age. Additionally, there is a need for environmentally friendly and portable toilets that cater to the nomadic lifestyle while meeting the requirements of tourists.
Through the initiative, herders are receiving essential guidance on becoming professional hosts and overcoming key challenges. Their success in establishing alternative income sources, reducing their reliance on the herd for livelihood, is crucial for their future. It plays a vital role in enhancing their adaptability to changing climate conditions, ensuring the survival of their lifestyle and traditions.
“When I grow up, I want to become a wrestler and herder just like my dad” says their youngest son, a third grader, expressing his aspirations for the future.
With a smile on his face, Narangerel affectionately pats his son on the head and says, "I am glad that he wants to carry on our herding tradition. However, I want to ensure that he receives a secondary education before he chooses to become a herder and wrestler." Ariuntuya wholeheartedly supports this sentiment and also expressed her pride in their eldest daughter's ambition to study dentistry after completing high school.
While they are hopeful to continue and preserve their traditional livelihood and nomadic herder culture, challenges of adverse climate change impacts loom large in the years to come underscoring the critical and ongoing support from development organizations such as UNDP and their partners.
Originally published on UNDP Mongolia.