Strengthening the Resiliency of Herders Facing Climate Change: The Case for Drought-Resistant Fodder

By Peter Bittner and
Katie Niemeyer

In 2013, local experts projected that due to climate change Mongolia will become increasingly dry and hot in the summer and experience greater snowfall in the winter. Owing to shifting climatic patterns, rates of soil erosion are expected to rise and droughts to become longer and more frequent. What makes these future calamities all the more alarming is that Mongolian rangeland is already at risk. It’s no secret that soil erosion, desertification, and threats from natural disasters—like dreadful dzuds, harsh winters followed by droughts—represent serious challenges to the herders who lead pastoral lifestyles. These factors, combined with short growing seasons and high livestock concentrations, have already led to increased rates of animal mortality and greater vulnerability of the nomadic population. According to a 2008 study published in the scientific journal, Rangelands, Mongolian pastureland has seen a 20to 30 percent decrease in productivity over the last 40 years. A February 10, 2015 piece in The Huffington Post stated, that “over the course of the past 30 years, approximately a quarter of the country has turned to desert, with around 850 lakes and 2,000 rivers having dried [up].” But how and why has the state of the steppes deteriorated so markedly in recent decades?
Local and international experts alike believe that the worst environmental impacts have occurred since Mongolia, once a Soviet satellite state, embarked on a profound transition to democracy in the early 1990s, following its independence from the former USSR. Dr. Ian Hannam, a renowned soil conservationist, argued in a 2010 book chapter, “Human Dimensions of Soil and Water Conservation: Mongolia,” that the lack of regulation of pastureland following the choppy transition to a market economy greatly contributed to the destruction of much of Mongolia’s crucial forage cover. De-regulation and ineffective governance coupled with social upheaval led to an increased human impact on the steppe.
Spurred by the sudden absence of government employment and faced with urban destitution, the early 1990s witnessed a large migration of city-dwelling Mongols to the countryside. At the same time as the inexperienced urbanites re-adopted the herding lifestyles of their grandparents or great-grandparents, post-Soviet reforms resulted in the removal of a social safety net for herders. Many scholars, including Dr. Marcus Taylor of Queens University, argue that in the absence of socialist-era negdels (publicly contributed and managed herds), insufficient government support for herders—especially in times of hardship—resulted in both negative social and environmental impacts.
The unregulated commercialization and stratification of the livestock industry over the period of privatization led to increased income inequality, rural poverty, and rates of rural-urban migration. Formerly able to borrow cattle or goats against the unions in times of need, many pastoral families hit hardest by extreme weather events in recent decades were forced to work for petty wages under the employment of growing herding operations or seek additional means of income in urban centers. A number of environmental consequences have accompanied these continuing social trends.
In part due to the increased familial need for as large a buffer as possible between survival and destitution, the average herd size has increased which, in turn, has caused serious rangeland degradation. Additionally, as tens of thousands of herders seeking additional economic means have moved to semi-established housing near urban centers, they’ve brought along their livestock, or at least the remnants of their herds. The deteriorating effects on the land are immediately obvious; vast swathes of muddy, trampled, and barren meadows radiate outward from town and village centers. Unsustainable concentrations of cattle, sheep, and goats have greatly intensified land use and affected the fragile steppe ecosystems.
As researcher Butterbach-Bahl and his team conveyed in a 2010 issue of Plant and Soil, this transition of herders to partially or fully sedentary pastoral lifestyles not only reduces the fertility and productivity of critical pastureland but also contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses due to the release of previously stored carbon and nitrogen from the soil into the atmosphere. It’s not just increased carbon dioxide and nitrogen displacement that’s of concern to climate scientists. Larger and more concentrated herds results in more methane byproducts, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide which currently comprises forty percent of the country’s emissions.
Further pressures on pastureland arise from the effects of high prices of Mongolian cashmere in international markets. In response to global demand, and in efforts to increase their economic resiliency, nomads are intentionally altering the composition of their herds to favor goats—whose numbers have doubled since economic liberalization. Because of their tendency to tear up grasses by their roots instead of cutting them at their bases like cows and horses, greater numbers of goats leads to overgrazing and further exacerbates erosion issues. Alterations in grazing patterns have also decreased the diversity of vegetation on the Mongolian steppe and increased the prevalence of the Artemisia weed. The reduced prevalence of traditionally mixed herds, which have naturally limited environmental impacts through their layered consumption of plants, has proved disastrous—all the more so due to the effects of climate change.
Bringing with it an increased likelihood of extreme weather conditions in summer and winter, a changing climate means that these ongoing social and environmental issues have become magnified. The climate in Mongolia is historically known for being harsh, arid, and unpredictable. In recent years, however, the weather has become increasingly erratic—primarily through an increased frequency of dzuds. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chose the Mongolia dzuds of 1999-2002 as a case study on how a changing climate is increasing household risk. As a result of extreme meteorological events which killed huge portions of herds, nomads migrated with their remaining animals to the central provinces; those least-affected by the alternating summer droughts and harsh winter weather. The unfortunate result was that the available grasslands were crushed by livestock levels well beyond the capacity of the land, reducing the productivity of the steppe. According to a 2008 study by Dr. Angerer, between 1999 and 2002, almost 35 percent of Mongolia’s domesticated herbivores perished. Frighteningly, this type of freakish series of events is only predicted to increase in prevalence in the coming decades.
Mongolian herders are less resilient and more vulnerable than ever as the risk for livestock mortality increases. In his published work Dr. Hannam cites low levels of human capacity and financial resources in the Mongolian government to effectively and fully address the issues facing the rural population, and points to the role of civil society, such as NGOs, to fill the gap. Considering this need, governmental and non-governmental organizations alike should step forward to strengthen Mongolian herders’ resiliency by increasing forage production and feed reserves, specifically by implementing projects that promote the planting and cultivation of drought-resistant varieties of forage. The need is real.
According to the Asian Development Bank “some 70 percent of Mongolia’s land is degraded through overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change.” A 2013 study by Punsalmaa demonstrated that “1.9 to 3.3 kg/day supplementary [additional] feed will be required to feed one sheep in the summer in 2020.” Increased forage production will ensure that herders are prepared to provide the additional dry fodder required for their livestock, and that a greater amount of grassland will still be available in the summer and fall when animals must consume the most calories and nutrients. A variety of foreign and domestic studies have expressed the need for mitigating the impacts of climate change on herders by increasing vegetative cover of pastures and improving the feed reserves for livestock. Further, research by Rosales and Livinets demonstrates the environmental benefits of devoting increasing amounts of land to forage crops, including increased carbon sequestration, reduced soil erosion, and lower levels of water pollution.
In recent years, while mining operations haved continued to degrade the steppe, there have been a handful of forage conservation projects implemented in Mongolia, including a laudable program supported by the Asian Development Bank. These efforts need to be strenghtened and muliplied in order to effectively address the needs of the herding population. We encourage diverse stakeholders and policy-makers to take action by initiating and supporting conservation projects to prevent the disappearance of crucial forage grasses necessary to sustain not just the ecosystem but Mongolia’s traditional nomadic lifestyle. After a review of relevant research the authors recommend a pilot project to help Mongolian herders adapt to climate change in a sustainable way by: 1) focusing efforts in Southern Mongolia; 2) utilizing conservation agriculture practices; and 3) using tested plant species that are well-suited for the environment. Here’s why…
First, with the Gobi encroaching northwards by an average of six to seven kilomenters each year, the southern region of Mongolia (particularly Umnugovi) will be especially vulnerable to climate change. According to Drs. Tachiiri and Shinoda, this region will likely also have the highest prevelance of drought and dzud disasters. Secondly, Dr. Hannam states that soil erosion has been exacerbated over the past 40 years due to “inadequate use of soil protection techniques” during cultivation, contributing to high levels of erosion across half of the cultivated land in Mongolia. Finally, the selection of forage species for planting should only consider varieties that are suited for local conditions. Researchers in the Mongolian Ministry of Environment and Green Development have found 15 species that should be considered, including, Medicago falcata, Agropyron cristatum (Chuluut), and Agropyron cristatum (Nart).
Once herders increase the drought-resistance of their pastureland and increase feed stock reserves, they will strengthen their resilience against the harsh dzuds and climactic events of the future. There is not much time to waste! The future of Mongolia’s herders and the continuation of its national culture depend on the ability of policy makers and stakeholders to act now.


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Posted by on Jun 12 2015. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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