Mongolian herders are struggling to survive without grass due to dust, hail, and bank loans.
When Ganzorig Tserenchimed reflects on the previous winter, he makes a pained expression. Harsh winds blew through the steppe and a thick layer of frost formed on the ground, making it difficult for animals to access the sparse grass underneath. The temperature dropped to below -35C.
Due to starvation, many of his animals perished from the cold. Some were unable to breathe in their enclosures as they huddled together for warmth. In order to rescue the remaining livestock, Ganzorig embarked on a journey of hundreds of miles to locate suitable grazing land, enduring several weeks of sleeping in his car. This ordeal nearly shattered his determination.
Ganzorig, a proud inheritor of his nomadic lifestyle, shares his thoughts as he serves fermented mares’ milk in his traditional Mongolian ger. Despite his pride, he acknowledges the challenges brought by extreme weather and his age. At times, he questions the purpose of continuing to herd under such difficult conditions and considers the option of selling his livestock and seeking employment in the city.
Around 30% of the population of Mongolia, which is close to 3.5 million people, rely on herding as their primary occupation. These herders follow the changing seasons as they move across the steppe in search of new grazing land for their livestock. The tradition of pastoralism is valued not just by those living in rural areas, but also by city residents who take pride in their country’s strong connection to this way of life.
“We are tied to livestock,” says Byambadorj Sainjargal, an official from Ganzorig’s central province of Uvurkhangai. “The nomadic culture is in our genes.”
Unfortunately, Mongolia’s grasslands are being destroyed by a combination of climate change and poor management. This has resulted in 90% of the grasslands being affected by desertification. As a result, many herders have been forced to leave their traditional lifestyle and move to urban areas.
The United Nations reports that temperatures in Mongolia, which is not near any ocean, have increased by 2.2 degrees Celsius since 1940. This is significantly higher than the global average increase. In addition, the country has experienced a sharp decline in annual rainfall. These changes have resulted in dry summers and extremely cold winters, a weather pattern known as dzud that is specific to Mongolia.
Recently, dzuds used to occur once or twice every ten years. However, according to Granzorig, they now occur almost every year, as evidenced by the recent harsh winters of 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Reduced summer precipitation results in decreased grass growth on the steppe, posing a challenge for animals to store enough food for the winter season. However, when precipitation does occur, it often occurs in heavy and rapid bursts, causing erosion of the top layer of soil. Additionally, there has been an increase in the frequency of severe weather events such as hail storms, dust storms, and others.
According to Bayan-Altai Luvsandorj, the country director of Save the Children, climate change is currently occurring. Without prompt action from policymakers, the traditional nomadic lifestyle will disappear and the country will lose its identity.
The impact is noticeable on the softly undulating field where Ganzorig has set up his traditional dwelling: the limited patches of grass emerging from the sandy ground are small, parched, and fragile. A short distance away, while her grandchildren gather her family’s goats into an enclosure for the evening, Jamb Navgan, Ganzorig’s neighbor, reminisces about the stark contrast of her childhood.
As a young girl, my parents would struggle to locate me in the tall grass, according to the 68-year-old. Our yard used to be filled with vibrant wildflowers and frequent summer rain, but in recent years, there has been a noticeable decline in the amount of grass.
Jamb’s family, like many other herders, have accumulated debts in order to purchase fodder. The loan they took out last winter brought their total debt to 13 million Mongolian tugriks, equivalent to roughly £3,000. They had initially planned to pay off this debt by selling their lambs and kids in the spring, but unfortunately, most of their malnourished animals were unable to reproduce. As a result, they are now considering taking out a new loan to pay off the previous one. Jamb describes this situation as a never-ending cycle, where their production is never sufficient to cover their debts.
After witnessing the struggles faced by their parents, many young Mongolians are not interested in pursuing the same path. At the secondary school in Sant, located near a town, students aspire to become teachers, police officers, and doctors rather than herders. “The harsh weather makes it too difficult,” explains 15-year-old Shirnentuya Enkhtur.
However, climate change is not the sole issue at hand. Overgrazing also poses a significant obstacle, which can be traced back to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
During communism, the government was in charge of managing livestock. While herders were allowed to possess a small number of animals, the majority were reared by government associations. However, when the iron curtain collapsed, restrictions on private property were removed, including taxes and laws related to pasture land.
The population of the national herd drastically increased, going from approximately 20 million to 71 million by 2022. However, due to desertification, the larger herd now has less land for grazing.
In the meantime, the cost of cashmere on a worldwide scale increased due to the demand from China’s expanding middle class. As a result, herders in Mongolia began purchasing more goats. However, because goats have a tendency to consume roots and seeds, they can cause more harm to grasslands compared to sheep and cattle.
Herders in Mongolia rely heavily on cashmere as a source of income. According to Jamb, approximately 80% of her family’s earnings come from selling wool. She believes that their financial situation would improve if they were able to purchase more goats. However, in their region, there are no other viable alternatives as there is no demand for meat in the market.
The situation is exacerbated by the rise of large groups of animals, often used as investments by wealthy city dwellers and business owners. Approximately 80% of herders possess fewer than 500 livestock, which accounts for 45% of the country’s total herd. Government statistics show that the top 20% of herders own the remaining 55% of Mongolia’s livestock.
According to Nyamtaivan Odongerel, the director of Steppe and Hoof, a group that advocates for herders, the government’s efforts are insufficient. While we cannot control the weather, we can implement policies to address the consequences of climate change.
Unfortunately, there is currently no law in Mongolia regarding the management of grazing lands. There have been multiple proposed bills, with the most recent one set to be debated in parliament soon. However, implementing regulations would be met with resistance from herders, as rural MPs are afraid of losing their votes, which hinders the ability to make decisions.
“The parliamentarians are facing a significant problem,” states Burmaa Dashbal, who leads the National Federation of Pasture User Groups (NFPUG). “Herders hold a lot of influence and when they unite, they cannot be defeated.”
At present, herders in Mongolia have the freedom to move their livestock wherever they please. However, the proposed legislation aims to grant herders ownership and control over their nearby pastures, preventing outsiders from using them for grazing. This would allow herders to strategically rotate their livestock across different pastures throughout the year, allowing for the recovery of the land.
Burmaa reports that both Steppe and Hoof and NFPUG are promoting the adoption of artificial insemination and modern veterinary techniques to enhance the worth of each animal. This will enable herders to decrease the size of their herds without sacrificing income.
She states that everyone acknowledges the problem of land degradation and the need for action, but there is no consensus on what to do about it.
At the moment, a large quantity of individuals are moving to the city of Ulaanbaatar, which is congested with traffic and filled with deteriorating Soviet structures, residential complexes, and polluting power plants. Many have established their temporary shelters in the “ger districts,” which are impoverished communities on the outskirts of the city that lack proper sanitation and amenities.
The residents in order to maintain warmth, burn coal. The mountains surrounding Ulaanbataar trap the resulting fumes, creating a thick smog that has made the city one of the most polluted capitals in the world.
Bayan-Altai explains that the disparity is growing due to the presence of urban households in the city and an influx of migrants from rural areas who are seeking employment opportunities. These individuals have limited access to essential services and are frequently taken advantage of by their employers.
In 2010, Bartbaatar Ulzibat relocated due to a severe dzud that caused the loss of 8 million animals in Mongolia and resulted in a significant influx of people to Ulaanbaatar. Bartbaatar, 43, shares that his family lost 40 horses, 40 cows, and approximately 350 goats and sheep during this natural disaster.
In the city of Ulaanbaatar, Bartbaatar has held various jobs such as a guard, a laborer, and a forklift driver. He currently lives in a new ger, which was given to him by Save the Children after his previous one was destroyed by flooding in August. His ger is located beneath two pylons.
“The pollution is particularly severe, especially during the winter,” he explains. “At night, I experience a sharp pain in my lungs and when I cough, I notice that the mucus is dark in color.”
Barbaatar, like many others, had intended to only temporarily reside in the city in order to earn some money and start over, but he was never able to save enough. As a result, he must remain near his children’s schools.
He holds onto a distant hope of eventually going back to the crisp air and expansive landscape of the steppe, but he is unsure of how to make it happen. “In my old home, there are only a few herders remaining,” he explains. “Everyone is migrating to the city.”