The country of Mongolia, sandwiched between Russia and China, is located in Northern Asia. Since ancient times, Mongolians have been engaged in pastoralism (Marin, 2008). Today, half of the inhabitants of the country still rely on pastoralism as both an economic activity and a way of life (National Statistics Office of Mongolia, 2009). Approximately 74 percent of land in Mongolia is used for pastoralist purposes, with most of the excluded land being forest and desert (MEGDM, 2014). The most common livestock used in this practice are camels, sheep, cows, goats, and horses (Neupert, 1999). A geographically diverse country, Mongolia, and the pastoralists within its borders, face an immense number of threats. The ways in which these threaten those that live off the land are numerous, but so are numerous the number of ways in which these hazards can be adapted to.
Hazards & Pastoralist Exposure
In Northern Asia, it is predicted that temperature has already risen by over 2℃ in the past 50 years, and is expected to increase 6℃ by the end of the 21st century (Hijioka et al., 2014). Landlocked countries like Mongolia are more likely to experience increases in temperature because they lack the temperature regulation that oceans provide land masses (Hijioka et al., 2014) and because of polar amplification due to high elevation and latitude of the country (Wang et al., 2014).
Temperature rise can have a plethora of impacts on pastoralists. For instance, it has already decreased rangeland productivity by 20-30% in the past fifty years (Angerer et al., 2008). The decline in productivity has caused the average weight of livestock to decrease and thus both the animals' economic value and use value to the pastoralists (Asian Development Bank, 2014). Higher temperatures in the winter also cause ice sheets to form over rangeland which prohibits animals from grazing which further deteriorates livestock health (Batima et al., 2005).
Mongolia is naturally susceptible to extreme winter weather events known as dzuds. These events are attributed with heavy snow, frozen groundwater, severe drops in temperature, and high winds (MEGDM, 2014). While dzuds occur naturally, an increase in these events can be attributed to changes in precipitation caused by climate change (Rao et al., 2015). Droughts in the summer before a dzud makes the event much more deadly to livestock because they are more weak due to lack of resources (Marin, 2010). Even without a preceding drought, dzuds can cause massive die off because the severe weather prevents access to food and water (MEGDM, 2014). Specifically, the extreme weather prevents livestock from foraging, weakens the animals, and makes water accessibility difficult (Rao et al., 2015).
Dzuds over two winters alone have been attributed to the mortality of 20 million livestock (Rao et al., 2015).
Change in Precipitation
- To the west and east precipitation is increasing, while it decreases in the south and central areas of the country (Batima et al., 2005).
- In the northern, mountainous region of Mongolia aridity and droughts are expected to increase (Hijioka et al., 2014).
- Mongolian pastoralists in the southern desert steppe reported “patchier rains” and an increase in droughts over their lifetimes (Marin, 2010).
This is a concern for pastoralists because they rely on precipitation patterns for their own migration patterns (MEGDM, 2014). Rain that occurs in patches creates islands of good foraging land that can be difficult to access which creates the risk of livestock mortality (Marin, 2010). The timing of precipitation has also changed to be later in the summer which means that pasture plants that herders rely on are not present during the expected season (Marin, 2010). Overgrazing coupled with decreased precipitation and rising temperatures causes desertification of previously fertile lands (MEGDM, 2014). For example, in the southern part of the country, the Gobi desert expands 150 kilometers every 20 years (Vernooy, 2011).
Surface water in Mongolia is already drying up as a result of increased temperature and decreased precipitation (Wang & Zhang, 2012). Groundwater, the source of 80% of Mongolia’s water supply, is at risk of drying up due to overuse and climate change (Hasiniaina et al., 2010). The alternative to groundwater is the use of wells; however, pastoralists find that this limits mobility and prevents fattening of livestock (Wang & Zhang, 2012). Alternatively, the other major source of water for pastoralists are glaciers which have decreased by 30% in Mongolia since the 1940s (MEGDM, 2014). The finite nature of the glaciers supply poses a threat for future flows of freshwater once the glaciers and permafrost have entirely melted away (Hasiniaina et al., 2010).
Vulnerability of Pastoralists
Economic pressure on pastoralists is a recent concept in Mongolia. Prior to 1990, Mongolia was a communist country during which there was an abundance of state resource support for pastoralists and animals were under collective ownership. This limited the number of animals on the livestock to sustainable amount. Under capitalism Mongolia privatized herds which resulted in a significant increase in herd size (Rao et al., 2015). Simultaneously most government support for pastoralists was ended as the government shifted its focus on urbanization and industrial activities (Janes, 2010). The government has also began to encourage pastoralists to enter other activities and fail to acknowledge the key role pastoralism plays in the country's identity (Marin, 2008). Due to lack of support, inequality amongst pastoralists became more apparent as poorer pastoralists had a more difficult time obtaining necessary permits (Rao et al., 2015). Increased herd size has exacerbated desertification and increased water use, which further contributes to the hazards of climate change (Janes, 2010).
“This is our life. We and our pastures are one body.”
- One Khazakh herder on the importance of pastoralism (Fernández-Giménez et al., 2017)
Pastoralists are heavily reliant on the climate sensitive resource of livestock as both a food and cash source. Livestock die off as a result of climate change hazards such as dzuds, shifting precipitation, water scarcity, and temperature rise not only means that there is less food, it also results in less income. This income is necessary to pay for education, health care, and other basic needs, and without it, public health is severely threatened (Janes, 2010). It has been found that, among the poor pastoralists, there has been a decrease in height in children and an increase in emotional and physical problems among adults (Janes, 2010).
Pastoralism in Mongolia traces back to the Bronze Age of humanity, approximately 3000 BC, a heritage that is the pride for many pastoralists (Fernández-Giménez et al., 2017). The hazards of climate change, in conjunction with capitalist pressure on pastoralists, pose a risk to the continuance of the practice of pastoralism. Interviews with pastoralist parents have revealed their desire for their children to pursue ambitions outside of livestock husbandry (Fernández-Giménez et al., 2017). This loss of a pastoralist livelihood could be detrimental to the culture that has developed around a spiritual connection to the land (Fernández-Giménez et al., 2017). Thus, not only is a livelihood vulnerable to effects of climate change, but the culture that is intrinsically tied to it is too. More positively, this connection to the land can play a role in the resilience of the country as well.
Coping with a Changing Landscape
In the face of climate change, more and more pastoralists are coping by seeking economic prospects in cities rather than in their native areas. This strategy has not only caused overcrowding and a significant rise in air pollution, but a loss of the pastoralist culture. The pastoralist life is a nomadic one, and so being settled in one place does not serve the traditions built around following the animals from season to season (Sarlagtay, 2004). Urbanization is only expected to increase and by 2030 it is predicted that only 5% of the country's population will be rural (Fernández-Giménez et al., 2017). The image to the left depicts the sprawl that has come with rapid urbanization (Batima et al., 2005).
Adaptation and Resilience
Improve breeding practices of livestock to select for animals that are best adapted to varied precipitation and decreased range productivity (ADB, 2014).
Capture and store snowmelt and rainwater through use of small dams to help save precious water supplies (ADB, 2014)
Decentralize rangeland decisions to give the power to control these decisions over the communities that are most affected by them (Fernández-Giménez, 2000)
The federal government must allocate more funds to rural communities to support development and capacity to maintain control over rangeland (Ahearn, 2018). These resources can also be used to recover from disaster such as dzuds (Fernández-Giménez, 2000)
Practice sustainable pasture use by using rotational grazing methods (ADB, 2014) and by practicing co-management of rangeland (Vernooy, 2011)
"Together, we collect hay and forage for the winter. We grow vegetables, comb goats, sheer sheep and ensure our river remains clean. These activities are quicker when carried out together."
Batkhuyag Tseveravajaa, head of the Uvurkhangai community in southern Mongolia, on the importance of pooling community resources in the face of climate change (DW, 2017).
The resilience of pastoralist people in Mongolia comes from the strength of immense local knowledge of the land that is at risk of being lost to the need to continue to grow herd size to reduce economic hardship. When outsiders call to preserve a cultural practice like pastoralism, it is important to not romanticize an ancient version of it but to preserve the practice in a way that is determined by the community (Marin, 2008). Based on this, an adaptation plan should focus on strengthening the resilience of the people through empowerment. Finance of the rural economy would allow local power over risk management to develop (Ahearn, 2018). Decentralizing decisions and money can also allow for co-management of communities over pasture lands. This would allow the decisions to be in the hands of those with the most ecological knowledge and thus restore a more sustainable system of livestock ownership (Vernooy, 2011). Additionally, more local management would allow for the most vulnerable, low-income pastoralists to be more resilient to the effects of extreme weather events and shifts in precipitation (Ahearn, 2018).
About the Author
Eliza Gillilan graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2019 as an Environmental Studies and Sociology combined major with minors in Biology and African Studies. Her interest in pastoralism was first piqued after learning about the Maasai during a semester abroad in Kenya. Thanks to Dr. Jon Rosales' Adaptation to Climate Change course, she was able to continue to explore her interest in pastoralists across the world who are connected to the Maasai by their fight to preserve a way of life in the face of climate change.
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