Mongolia’s nomadic lifestyle threatened by climate change, neglect, modernity
“It was very hard and the snow was thick,” said Nyamdorj Tumursanaa, a 38-year-old shepherd, drinking milk tea in the nomads’ traditional circular tent-shaped house known as a ger. “Even though the animals were digging in the snow, there was no grass underneath. We had to buy grass for them, but many of our animals died.
Here, in the Central Asian steppe, the former home of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde, nomads are raised the hard way. Yet their old way of life is threatened like never before. Global climate change, combined with local environmental mismanagement, government neglect and the allure of the modern world, has created a toxic cocktail.
Every year, thousands more herders abandon their way of life and head to Mongolia’s overcrowded capital, Ulaanbaatar, home to half the country’s population.
Nomadic culture is the essence of what it is to be a Mongolian, but it is a country in dramatic and sudden transition: from a one-party state and Soviet-style command economy to a chaotic democracy and a free market economy, and from an entirely nomadic culture to a modern, urban lifestyle.
Climate change is a major culprit, and Mongolia, landlocked and far from the moderating effects of the ocean, suffers more than most parts of the world.
In the best of cases, it is a fragile climate, with little rainfall and enormous temperature variations, which is why this vast territory only supports a population of 3 million inhabitants, which makes it the least populated country in the world.
Now government figures show average temperatures have risen by around 2.2 degrees Celsius (4.0 degrees Fahrenheit) since systematic records began in 1940 – well above the global average rise of around 0 .85 degrees Celsius (1.53 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880.
Summers, when most rainfall occurs, have become drier and “extreme weather events” have become more frequent, said Purevjav Gomboluudev, head of climate research at the Mongolian Information and Research Institute. on meteorology, hydrology and the environment.
In the grasslands outside the small town of Altanbulag, Banzragch Batbold, 47, and his wife, Altantuya, remember how streams flowed from every mountain in their youth, how horses dipped into a local pond to cool in summer. “Now all that water is gone,” she said.
Hundreds of rivers, lakes and springs have dried up across the country, the says the Ministry of the Environment. And as the water recedes, the desert advances. About three-quarters of Mongolia’s land is degraded or suffering from desertification, of which about a quarter is severely affected, said Damdin Dagvadorj, director general of the Academy of Climate Change and Development.
But Mongolia’s mismanaged twin transitions are also to blame.
In Soviet times, Mongolia, a satellite state, tightly controlled nomadism. Animals were kept in common ownership, but their numbers were limited, while the state provided veterinary services, winter fodder and a guaranteed market.
In 1990, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Mongolia abandoned its one-party state and became a democracy. Three years later, it began to privatize the herds.
What followed was a huge increase in the number of animals, as individual ranchers assessed their worth by the amount of cattle they owned.
State support simultaneously disappeared almost overnight.
Today, 66 million head of cattle roam the Mongolian steppe, almost three times the ceiling of 23 million maintained during the communist era. Overgrazing is a major cause of pasture degradation, especially by voracious, sharp-hoofed goats whose numbers have exploded to supply the valuable cashmere trade. Rampant and uncontrolled mining is also using huge amounts of groundwater, pushing the water table ever lower.
At the same time, the government has failed to extend education, health care and veterinary care to remote herding communities, said Ulambayar Tungalag of the Saruul Khuduu Environmental Research Center. “There is no incentive to stay in rural areas,” she said.
And inequality is growing: 80% of cattle are controlled by the wealthiest 20% of owners, among them urban elites who pay others to tend their herds. More than 220,000 Mongolian families depend on livestock, but more than half have fewer than 200 animals, government figures showwell below the threshold of 250 to 300 considered economically sustainable.
Farmers may have solar panels, smartphones and televisions, but life isn’t getting any easier. Families are separated for much of the year as children head to boarding schools in the nearest towns, sometimes accompanied by mothers.
In winter, Altantuya stays, rising at first light to scoop frozen cow dung out of the snow to start a fire, with Batbold departing to protect the animals from wolves, wind, and snow.
“In winter, people feel lonely,” he admitted. “You can’t go anywhere. You have television now, but your children are in school. The women go crazy and the men drink vodka.
The couple’s children go to school in Ulaanbaatar. Neither child has expressed a desire to follow in their parents’ footsteps. “Nobody wants to be a nomad,” Batbold said. “When I am old, and if I can no longer ride horses, there will be no one left to take care of the steppe.”
Quentin Moreau, national director of AVSF (Agronomists and Veterinarians Without Borders), a French non-profit group supporting peasant agriculture, says no investment is being made to make life easier for herders. Projects to promote quality over quantity – for example, rewarding herders with higher prices for better quality cashmere – are still too small to make a difference, and government plans to promote agriculture intensive don’t make sense on water-deprived grasslands, he said.
Moreau fears an acceleration of the rural exodus – to the point that the system of villages and towns serving the herders is no longer viable. The few social services available could disappear altogether.
Yet the appeal of the capital often turns out to be a mirage.
A century ago, the city that is now Ulaanbaatar was little more than a trading post and monastery. Today it’s a sprawling mess of 1.4 million people, half living in Soviet-style apartments, half in the sprawling, unplanned “ger districts” where people have set up their homes on the hills surrounding the city.
The Mongols are a people deeply connected to nature, who call their country the Land of Eternal Blue Sky. But their capital has become the land of choking smog, as ger dwellers burn coal to protect themselves from the cold.
In winter, the capital has one of the worst air pollution in the world. Cases of respiratory infections have almost tripled in a decade, pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death in infants and children living in the city center have 40% lower lung function than those in rural areas, UNICEF says.
Residents of ger districts have no access to running water, while jobs for rural migrants are scarce and poorly paid – a caretaker, a cook, a driver perhaps. A lot of people don’t have the skills to succeed here.
At important festivals and events, politicians like to don the national costume – the shepherds’ tunic, or deel – but do nothing to protect the source of this culture, Tungalag said. Meanwhile, in urban society, herders are often stigmatized, their ways of life despised.
“No one understands that actually the Mongolian identity – being a nomadic person, being close to nature – is being lost,” Tungalag said.
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