Adapting to climate change to save Mongolia’s ancient herding culture

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Herders want technical information that can be adapted to their ancient livelihood, including updates on weather and the quality of pasture. © Hler Gudjonsson/IFRC

Published: 25 August 2016 4:07 CET

By Terrence Edwards, IFRC

As they have done for millennia, Mongolian herders continue their ancient nomadic way of life, driving their livestock between pastures, subsisting on a simple diet of dairy and meat.

For generations they have been able to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world, but rising temperatures, desertification and the increasingly erratic weather brought on by climate change are now threatening their livelihood.

“This winter was really harsh and especially spring dragged,” said G Amartuushin, a lifetime herder in Uvs Province who lost 30 sheep and 10 cattle to starvation and extreme cold.

“We couldn’t get enough hay and fodder and the situation became really bad.”

This summer, Amartuushin’s family and tens of thousands of other Mongolian pastoralists are recovering from an extremely taxing winter disaster. More than 800,000 animals died last winter as a consequence of extreme winter temperatures, heavy snowfall and a summer drought that seriously affected winter pastures. This type of disaster is unique to Mongolia and known locally as dzud. Temperatures in Uvs province dipped below -50 Celsius and heavy snowfall made travel impossible.

“We had very little food and medicine during the dzud this winter and we really feared that our family would not survive,” said Amartuushin.

In March, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an emergency appeal to support the Mongolian Red Cross Society in providing the worst affected herders with food and other necessities to ensure their basic survival.

During the winter, the national society handed out 192,000 Tugrik (about $100) in cash to 300 families throughout Uvs. Another 240 families received bundles of food parcels and 64,000 Tugrik.

Every summer, Ts Amartush, a young university student, spends his vacations with the family, herding what is left of their flock on the grasslands of Uvs Province, one of Mongolia’s most remote regions.

Resting outside the family ger, a traditional Mongolian herder dwelling, he’s still adjusting to the slow-paced days on the steppe.

“Right now, I don’t see myself as a herder, but I'll decide after I graduate from university,” he said, adding that he’s discouraged by the frequent natural disasters unique to Mongolia.

Now as winter has already passed, the Red Cross is revisiting the homes it supported and helping them to better prepare for the next inevitable disaster.

For example, in July the Red Cross distributed barometers to herder families to help them monitor sudden weather changes.

“Herders want more technical innovation that can be adapted to their ancient livelihood,” said Madame Nordov Bolormaa, secretary general of the Mongolian Red Cross Society.

“Up-to-the-minute updates on weather and the quality of pasture could be real game changers that can save families the loss of their animals.”

The Monglian Red Cross, supported by the IFRC, also organizes workshops together with herders, Red Cross volunteers and other members of the dzud affected communities.

The workshops seek to come up with recommendations on how the Red Cross can help them to be better prepared for future challenges related to climate change, including better use of modern technology to improve safety and provide early disaster warning.

As summer draws to an end, Amartush will be leaving again for his university in Ulaanbaatar, 1,300km away from the endless grasslands where his forefathers have always lived.

He worries about his family and how they will fare without him. “Most people believe that next winter will be harsh,” he said, citing a belief based on Mongolia’s lunar calendar.

“It will be up to the younger generations to adapt to this changing world to prevent this cherished culture from disappearing,” said Amartush, including making use of technology and modern knowledge.

“We're ready to help if there's any way.”