MONGOLIA: GLOBAL WARMING HITS MONGOLIA’S NOMADS HARD

As far back as she knew -- five generations or more -- Khurtsaa’s family had lived in Mongolia’s central Khentii Province, raising sheep, goats and horses. Like most nomadic herding families, they moved around with the seasons, to traditional spring, summer, autumn and winter grazing spots. But slowly, the pastureland has changed. "The flowers I used to see when I was little started disappearing, and then the grass started getting worse," she recalled. About five or six years ago it got bad enough that the family started having to move more frequently to find suitable grass for their herds, eventually moving as many as 10 times a year. "There wasn’t enough grass, and it wasn’t good grass," she said.

Last year, they gave up and moved to a new province altogether, Tov. The grass there is much better, she said, and they now only have to move about four times a year.

But this territory was already occupied by other nomadic families. Her new neighbors "pretend to be understanding," she said. But climate change is affecting their pastures, too, and when an official from the local government showed up and demanded that they move back to where they had come from, he said he was coming because some of her new neighbors -- she didn’t know which -- had complained.

Global warming is having a harsh effect on Mongolia’s nomadic herders, who comprise about 40 percent of the country’s overall 3 million inhabitants. Since 1940, the mean air temperature in the country has increased 1.6 degrees Celsius. Heat waves are longer, and rain patterns have become "quite variable, decreasing at one site and increasing at a site nearby," according to an assessment by the country’s Ministry of Nature and the Environment. The Gobi Desert, in the south of the country, is creeping northward.

These changes are having damaging economic consequences. According to research by the Mongolian government, the average weight of a sheep in Mongolia decreased four kilos from 1980 to 2001, while the weight of a goat dropped two kilos and that of cattle 10 kilos. Wool production dropped more than 8 percent over the same period.

The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, visited Mongolia this past summer to call attention to the impact of global warming on herder communities, and on the need for governments to help address climate-change issues.

Climate change is causing a variety of social dislocations in Mongolia, including the kinds of conflicts that Khurtsaa’s family is experiencing. There is no concrete data on these conflicts, but they are real, and the days when Mongolia was so wide open that nomads could wander freely are coming to an end, said G. Davaadorj, head of the Coping with Desertification Project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

"Traditionally, the population in Mongolia has been very small, as well as the livestock population. And with the vast territory, it was viable to practice that kind of livestock breeding. But nowadays, factors like climate change, urbanization and a dramatic increase the number of livestock, it’s become impossible to migrate when and where one wishes," he said. "And so there is a great increase in these types of conflicts."

The Mongolian government is working on a number of strategies to mitigate the effects of global warming. The Ministry of Nature and the Environment is looking at how to teach herders to use pastureland so that the grass grows back faster. Officials are also trying to set aside reserve animal feed for hard times and to improve water access, said D. Dagvadorj, director of the ministry’s Department of Information, Monitoring and Evaluation. So far, though, he said the progress has been "not so great."

In addition, officials have produced draft legislation to change the way land is used as pasture. Under the constitution, pasture land can not be owned and is free for anyone to use. But under the draft law, local authorities would be able to allocate pastureland for long term use by a particular family. The amount of land would be determined by local authorities based on the number of family members and animals.

The draft law, which is currently under review by the relevant government ministries and agencies before being sent to parliament, could potentially resolve some climate-related issues, but experts say the legislation is unlikely to win legislative approval, Davaadorj said. Influential members of parliament from the Gobi don’t support it because their constituents generally have to move more frequently because of the harsh conditions there. So other options include imposing a small tax on land use, or taxing goats and horses because they have a disproportionately negative effect on pastureland, he said.

Like Khurtsaa’s neighbors, Khuukhen, an elderly herder in the Gobi Desert near the city of Dalanzadgad, said families are leaving her neighborhood in droves. "When I was younger, most of this area had good pasture. Now maybe only 20 percent of it is good," she said in an interview in her ger, or felt tent. "Everyone is leaving for somewhere with better pasture, sometimes close by, sometimes far away."

Khuukhen said that generally her family is accommodating toward other families that move into the area. But when another family moved to within a couple of kilometers of their home turf this fall, they had to object. "If someone comes in the summer, it’s not a problem because there is enough pasture," she said. "But after August, we can’t allow it."

Her husband went to the new family’s ger and told them they had to move, and they didn’t argue. "They knew their animals were eating our grass," she said.


Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Source:www.eurasianet.org
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