For Mongolians, climate change is as personal as it gets

By Lean Alfred Santos 07 March 2016

A family settlement in the deep mountains of Bayankhongor province in Mongolia. How is climate change affecting the lives of people in the country? Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

When the world adopted the newest climate agreement during the United Nations climate change conference — or COP21 — in Paris, France, last December, an urgent warning was sounded: The effects of climate change will only worsen if nothing is done to address the problem.

And from the get go, most of the focus has been on the big numbers: restrictions on the global temperature increase should be way below 2 degrees Celsius (with 1.5 degrees Celsius as the target limit); climate financing needs may top $100 billion per year by 2020; and countries are now required to create detailed plans towards an emission-free future, among other key points in the 31-page document.

But the real effects of climate change, increasingly evident over the past couple of decades, remain most striking on the ground, where entire communities are washed out by extreme weather events — as witnessed in the Philippines during the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan — and forced to evacuate, notably in Kiribati where the population of the Pacific island nation are at risk of becoming the world's first climate refugees due to rising sea levels.

Even in the landlocked nation of Mongolia, the negative effects of climate change have hit home — quite literally. Oyun Sanjaasuren, inaugural president of the United Nations Environment Assembly, said that her country's vulnerability to climate change could be the highest in the world by the turn of the century, if current rate of temperature increase continues.

“Mongolia's average warming over the past couple of years is 2.2 degrees Celsius, which is considered the hottest in the country since the 1940s, and the global average is at 0.8 degrees Celsius,” said Sanjaasuren, who has also served as a member of parliament in the East Asian nation since 1998.

Horses herding in Bayankhongor, Mongolia. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

The effects of climate change have been severe in Mongolia, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south. In 2009 and 2010 alone, around 8.5 million livestock died — consisting mostly of goats, sheep, cows and horses — as a result of extreme weather conditions known as a “dzud,” a summer drought followed by a heavy snowfall.

The phenomenon is unique to the East Asian nation, exacerbated by the fact that around one-third of the country's work force depends on animal husbandry and livestock herding to earn a living. And this year, dzud is once again threatening livelihoods.

Since November 2015, large parts of the country have been experiencing very low temperatures of up to  minus 40 degree Celsius, followed by heavy snowfall that has covered around 90 percent of Mongolia's territory. This has resulted in sharp reductions in plant life used for livestock feed and rendering pastures — and even basic services such as transportation — largely inaccessible.

Data from January listed 211 out of 339 districts in Mongolia as suffering or are entering near-dzud conditions. Almost a quarter of a million people — roughly 40 percent of the country's herder population — has also been identified living in high-risk zones or in isolated mountain ranges where accessibility is an issue. Livestock casualties are spiralling to the hundreds of thousands and the numbers are expected to further increase in the coming months as conditions worsen.

Cows herding in mostly snow-covered areas in rural Mongolia. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

Personal crusade

While the government has been preparing for dzud over the past few months, the negative effects of climate change remain glaring — especially among herder families tucked deep away in the snow-capped mountains of the country.

“Herders and livestock were used to warmer winters … so now with colder winters, it makes it hard to cope with the temperature,” Tsedensednom, governor of Ulziit district, located more than 600 kilometers southwest of the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, told Devex.

“I'm not a scientific expert, but in my personal experience, the changes [to the environment] are evident,” he added. “When I was a kid, the grass was so high you couldn't see calves. Now grass only grows 10 centimeters, or not at all.”

This situation has been exacerbated by overgrazing, an issue in the country for several years. D. Shirmen, chairman of Bayankhongor province’s citizen’s representative assembly, shared that apart from climate change affecting vegetation growth in the province, rapid livestock growth following mass livestock deaths six years ago has resulted in the rapid degradation of pasture lands.

“There is overcapacity of about 1.3 million livestock grazing in our pasture lands from a total number of 3.7 million,” he said. “The dzud on top of a large number of livestock has not given the pasture lands enough time to recover.”

The double effects of overgrazing and dzud has resulted in an uphill struggle — economically, socially and even psychologically — among herder communities. Heads of families leave their families for months at a time, accompanying their remaining livestock in search of new pasture lands, while others succumb to depression as piles of dead livestock grow ever higher.

Horse carcass in the mountains of rural Mongolia. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

Some families in the area living in traditional “gers” — portable round tents made out of wood and animal skin or felt — have gone from hundreds of livestock to under 70 over the past few months, with animals dying of hunger and bitter cold. In a remote location in one of the districts of Bayankhongor province visited by Devex, three abandoned gers lay on the horizon, with a hundred or so recently perished livestock, mostly goats, piled up nearby.

Some families have reportedly lost 500 or even a thousand livestock — with some forced to slaughter a number of their herd to sell fur or meat in an already oversupplied market, where prices continue to fall. This is a tragedy for herders, who not only make a living out of raising livestock but also take pride in the country's deeply rooted culture of animal husbandry and herding.

The effect was so severe that in some areas, herders that lost a significant part of their livestock have even committed suicide out of depression and frustration — pushing local nongovernmental organizations to provide psychological support to these communities beyond the usual economic and social aid.

D. Betdamba, head of Bayankhongor province’s Red Cross branch, shared that such incidences of suicide — now increasingly less common — show the multifaceted effects of the situation, beyond only economic losses.

“Losing livestock affects the morale of the herders and their families because they take pride in that tradition,” she said. “They feel responsible for their herd.”

Other pressing issues

Aside from losing livestock and pasture lands, there are other climate-related issues currently hounding Mongolia at a time when its economy is rapidly slowing down and its currency weakening after years of double digit growth.

With herders having difficulties making a living by raising livestock, Bayankhongor governor Jargalsaikhan Damdinsuren shared that some people, at least in his province, have resorted to artisanal or “ninja” mining over the past few years, in the wake of the country's mining boom.

Two young Mongolians looking for suitable pasture land around the snow-covered mountains in the province. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

But this surge in livelihood diversification has serious effects on the province's environment — not to mention the health and safety of people involved in small-scale mining. Significant swathes of land in the province are being destroyed and dug up for precious minerals that are sold in informal markets in the province, and likely, in other parts of the country.

“In 2000, there was an increase in ninja mining that resulted in environmental damage affecting around 300 hectares of land in the province,” G. Gantulga, Bayankhongor's head of development policy division, told Devex.

Another perhaps even more pressing issue in the country is the pollution from heavy coal and diesel-burning to meet the heating and power needs of the growing nation. From the airport, black smoke interrupts Ulaanbaatar's skyline from the various coal and diesel power plants in the capital on top of individual coal-fueled heat-only-burners present in commercial establishments and households.

Sanjaasuren shared that air pollution is a serious issue that is only going to get worse, given that 180,000 households in the country of 3.1 million people depend on burning coal for heating and with that number expected to grow rapidly in the coming years.

A traditional Mongolian ger. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

And this is also evident in provincial centers such as Bayankhongor. As Governor Damdinsuren shared: “Before, we burned forests to get firewood, but we stopped that 100 percent. But without that, people now burn coal. With colder winters, people need more warmth.”

Despite this issue, the government revealed it has plans to transition to a greener economy in the coming years. Munkzhul Chimed-Ochir, green development policy officer at the Ministry of Environment, Green Development and Tourism, shared that while it may take a while and a lot of funding, she is hopeful that the country's Green Development Policy — formulated in 2014 to create a more sustainable energy mix, including renewable energy — would soon hit the ground running.

Pollution from coal-burning heaters operate day and night in Mongolia especially in the winter. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

International aid

Due to the recent difficulties in the country, the international community has responded with significant financial aid and truckloads of supplies by way of support.

The Asian Development Bank, for example, has proposed a $3 million grant to the government to “strengthen resilience and capacity” of the country's various levels of government, so that they are better equipped in responding to natural disasters such as dzuds, on top of implementing much more effective and streamlined disaster risk management strategies.

“We are extending the best help we can despite the difficult situation to reach the most far-flung communities in the country,” said Robert Schoellhammer, ADB's country director for its Mongolia resident mission.

International organizations and NGOs including Save the Children have also been on alert to assess the needs of the people. Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has just launched an emergency appeal of about $835,000 to assist over 25,000 vulnerable herders in the East Asian nation. Total financial assistance from aid groups to the country is expected to reach the $10 million mark.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Asia-Pacific development reporter Lean Santos was reporting on the ground in Mongolia for Devex in February, during a press trip organized by the Asian Development Bank.

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About the author

Lean 2
Lean Alfred Santos@DevexLeanAS

Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.


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