Global warming forcing Mongolian nomads to change lifestyles

April 02, 2014

By DAISUKE SUDO/ Staff Writer

ULAN BATOR--Men on horseback chase sheep and goats over the snow-covered land in winter in the Mongolian plains, where temperatures can drop to minus 30 degrees.

The strong wind that blows over the plains takes its toll on man and animals. Taking an even bigger toll on the traditional way of life of the nomads is global warming.

For those living in northern latitudes with harsh winters, global warming might be considered a blessing if it leads to milder weather. However, the experience in recent years of nomads in Mongolia shows that even a rise of a few degrees can have devastating effects not only on the ecosystem, but on an entire society.

About a four-hour drive west from Ulan Bator, a nomad family was struggling to keep its livestock healthy.

Skinny goat kids were covered in cloaks to keep them warm. Rather than allow those young animals out into the snowy plains, they were kept behind with the family.

"I know immediately which ones have weakened," the 45-year-old rancher said.

The family has to be careful until spring comes to ensure that none of their valuable livestock dies.

Ironically, it is not the warmer winters that have hurt nomad families, but climate change in the summer. Such change has led to a weakening of livestock that forms the primary means of livelihood for many nomads.

If sufficient grass does not grow in summer, livestock will be unable to accumulate enough nutrition to sustain them through the country's harsh winter. That has led in recent years to large-scale livestock deaths because the animals are unable to adapt to even minor temperature or snowfall changes during the winter.

The Mongolians refer to such massive deaths as “zud.” Global warming increases the risk of zud. In Mongolia, several percent of livestock die on average over the winter. However, if more than 10 percent dies, that constitutes a zud.

The zud of 2010 was particularly severe, as more than 9 million animals out of a total livestock population of 45 million were estimated to have perished.

NOMADS MOVE TO ULAN BATOR

Today, surrounding the more modern architecture of Ulan Bator is a web of yurts, the traditional collapsible Mongolian tent used by nomads.

The large amount of coal that is used for cooking and heating produces columns of black smoke. That is one reason the World Bank has described Mongolia's capital as one of the cities with the worst air pollution in the world, exceeding even the frightening levels found in China.

Of a total Mongolian population of about 2.9 million, about half live in Ulan Bator.

With rapid economic growth in recent years, the population of the capital has increased by several tens of thousands every year, mainly due to people moving in from rural areas. The damage from the zud has been one reason for the push of nomads to the capital.

A 2001 survey found that about 12,000 people moved to Ulan Bator and surrounding areas from around Mongolia due to the effects of the zud of the previous winter.

A 37-year-old rancher lost almost all of his horses and cattle in the 2010 zud. He moved to a community near Ulan Bator from his hometown more than 500 kilometers away. He sold the few animals that still remained and used the money to buy cows. He now raises about 20 cows.

"I want to go back home, but it is more convenient for me economically to remain here," he said.

Experts point to several factors behind the recent increase in zud, including the move toward a market economy since the 1990s and the increase in livestock kept by nomads as they seek to increase their income.

Sarantuya Ganjuur, a researcher at Mongolia's Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, predicts that the nomadic lifestyle will likely disappear in the future.

LESSENING THE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARNING

Mongolia is prone to feel the effects of global warming.

Over the past 70 years, the average temperature has increased by 2.17 degrees, which is about three times the world average.

That has not only led to an increase in droughts, but has also led to melting of permafrost, which covers about 60 percent of Mongolia's land mass.

Masataka Watanabe, a project professor at Tokyo's Keio University who has researched Mongolia's water environment, said that in places, up to five meters of frozen surface soil has already disappeared. That has led to a decrease in water levels in rivers. The budding of plants that depended on frozen surface soil has also been delayed.

In the past, the main cause of zud was the rare appearance of extremely strong cold waves in the winter. However, a report by a joint study group made up of the Mongolian government and United Nations found that the main cause of zud after 2000 has been summer droughts.

The Asian Development Bank released an economic impact report last autumn in which it warned that Mongolia faced the possibility of losing at least one-quarter of its gross domestic product by the end of the 21st century due to global warming.

Because global warming will be difficult to stop, finding ways to lessen the damage has become a global issue.

Such efforts are also now beginning in Mongolia.

Researchers from Keio University and the National University of Mongolia began a project from last summer of transmitting information by e-mail to the mobile phones that many nomads use. Among the information passed on is weather information, as well as the growing condition of the grasslands. While about 1,000 people now receive that information, plans call for expanding the number to more than 20,000 by this summer.

A new project that will begin in the new fiscal year with assistance from the Japanese government is a frozen storage facility for meat that would use natural energy sources.

The animals that die due to zud cannot be consumed. However, if the meat can be preserved before the zud hits and the timing of the shipping of the meat can be controlled, the economic damage could be limited.

Any reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that is due to technological cooperation can be used by Japan as its reduction amount through a bilateral credit exchange system.

Watanabe is also involved in that project.

"By reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide, we will also work toward restraining damage from global warming," he said. "We want to verify this process so that it can become a global model."

If the quality of the meat from the livestock can be improved, there would be no need to aggressively increase the number of animals being raised. That would lead to limiting the number of animals to match the natural environment.

Chuluun Togtokh, a science adviser to Mongolia's environment minister, holds expectations for assistance that Japan can provide. He said an important measure to deal with global warming would be diversifying sources of income by heightening the added value of the livestock.

By DAISUKE SUDO/ Staff Writer
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Central Ulan Bator is barely visible due to air pollution. Traditional yurts have been set up on the outskirts of the capital. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

Central Ulan Bator is barely visible due to air pollution. Traditional yurts have been set up on the outskirts of the capital. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

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  • Central Ulan Bator is barely visible due to air pollution. Traditional yurts have been set up on the outskirts of the capital. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)
  • A nomad watches over a herd of sheep and goats in Mongolia. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)
  • This Mongolian mother and daughter moved to Ulan Bator after a zud killed off many of their livestock 10 years ago. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

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