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Mongolian Herders Face Cultural and Climate Change On Road to New Future

Kids playing on the countryside of Mongolia.  | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Published in partnership with Thomson Reuters Foundation's Place initiative.

With about 100 sheep and goats, Jugder Samdan makes just enough to scrape by as a nomadic herder in Mongolia, basking in the sun as he watches over his animals, but he worries about the future.

Samdan has seen major changes during his 70 plus years on the vast semi-arid grassland, or steppe, in central Mongolia's Arkhangai province, with shifts in politics and society impacting one of the world's last remaining nomadic cultures.

But what most concerns Samdan and fellow herders is climate change, as droughts, harsh winters, and over-grazing threaten traditional livelihoods and drives younger people to the over-crowded capital, fuelling pollution, crime and mental illness.

"Everybody moves to the city," Samdan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation wrapped in a felt jacket outside his ger, a traditional white, circular herder's tent or yurt made of felt.

"There are too many people there."

About one quarter of Mongolians still live a traditional nomadic life in the Central Asian country sandwiched between Russia and China which has four times the land mass of Germany but is thinly-populated with about 3 million people.

But life is changing fast and about 68,000 herders a year have moved to the city since 2001, according to Ulaanbaatar's Deputy Mayor Batbayasgalan Jantsan, setting up sprawling informal ger districts lacking facilities like water and power.

Herders in Mongolia are moving to the city, setting up sprawling informal ger districts. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Herders in Mongolia are moving to the city, setting up sprawling informal ger districts. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled in the last 10 years to 1.4 million people, according to the Mongolian National Statistics Office, with about 55 percent of the city's population - or 750,000 people - living in ger districts.

"That's almost an entire province," said Jantsan in an interview in his office in central Ulaanbaatar, a city shrouded in a dense smog during winter months due to air pollution.

As winter temperatures can drop below minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit), ger dwellers burn raw coal to stay warm, driving pollution levels eight to 14 times higher than global guidelines, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Air pollution is estimated by the WHO to cause more than 4,000 deaths a year in Mongolia and is now one of the nation's most challenging issues, with the burning of coal accounting for 80 percent of air pollution from November to April.

"It's a threat to national security," said Jantsan.

The WHO estimates air pollution causes more than 4,000 deaths a year in Mongolia. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation
The WHO estimates air pollution causes more than 4,000 deaths a year in Mongolia.  | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation


Bazarragchaa Altantsetseg, a land use specialist at land consultancy Vector Maps LLC, said dwellings were traditionally designed to move in Mongolia and it was not after Soviet control in 1921 that fixed properties became more prevalent.

The Russians also had a major impact on herding. The state owned the nation's herd and grazing land, where herders paid a wage for working in collective farms. The herd was kept at about 25 million in line with land capacity assessments.

But that changed after Mongolia became a parliamentary democracy in 1990 and privatization followed, prompting a surge in numbers with the herd hitting 56 million in 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"Since 1990 everything was chaos ... everyone wanted to have the land ... and animals," Altantsetseg said.

Some herders have welcomed the new post-Soviet system.

"The conditions are fair for everyone. Compared to the previous regime you can work hard to have a better life, you can grow your herd and get a car," Samdan said.

But the dramatic increase in the herd has brought problems of over-grazing exacerbated by desertification, as witnessed by Samdan's daughter Altantsetseg Jugdur, aged in her 30s.

Altantsetseg Jugdur remembers the days when the grasses in Mongolia grew tall enough to cover the cattle. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Altantsetseg Jugdur remembers the days when the grasses in Mongolia grew tall enough to cover the cattle. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation

"When I was a child ... you couldn't see the animals in the grass. Now look at what we have. Only dust and soil," she said.

Herders' accounts of climate change are backed by data with a 2014 report from Japan's Ministry of the Environment stating Mongolia's annual mean temperature rose by 2.14 percent between 1940 and 2008 with drier weather leading to more dust storms.

The report also highlighted an increasing frequency of cold and snow damage from so-called dzuds since the early 1990s — the name for a severe winter that comes after a summer drought.

"If there is grass beneath the snow then the animals will survive. When there is no grass beneath the snow then it is dzud," explained herder Altangerel Dolgor.


Mongolia's recent winter killed more than 700,000 livestock left weak after a drought last year, the highest toll since 2011, according to the country's statistics bureau.

The steppe around Tuvshruulekh is littered with animals that have frozen to death. Stray dogs and groups of vultures dot the landscape scavenging the frozen carcasses.

​Samdan said he can read the signs of climate change around him. Lizards are appearing for the first time while some plants are disappearing, including those used in traditional medicines.

"Before we used to have a leaf which we would boil and drink for stomach problems. Now I can't find it anymore," he said.

But it is not just the damage to livestock and the land concerning herders but social changes.

Bayarmaa Vanchindorj, deputy director of the National Mental Health Centre, said there has been rising numbers of cases of addiction, depression, trafficking and sexual abuse of children.

Thousands of Mongolians protested in front of parliament in Ulaanbaatar in March to demand more action to prevent child abuse after the widely-reported rape of a young boy.

"Mongolians for many centuries roamed unlimited spaces of their own free will. So I think urbanization took its toll on people's minds," she said.

Narantuya Nijir is one example. She lost all her livestock in a 2010 dzud and now lives in a ger in her landlord's yard at the edge of Ulaanbaatar where the city meets the open pasture.

"It's quite difficult living in someone else's yard. Even when they don't give us a hard time we worry a lot," she said.

Up the road lives Samdan's son Chudur with his young family. He has adapted to city life better, having bought a small plot of land where he has just built a small house, in the process learning the skills to start a small double-glazing business.

Chudur Jugder, an entrepreneur living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Chudur Jugder, an entrepreneur living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. | Shanshan Chen/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Back on the steppe Samdan concedes herding is a tough life but his pleas for young people to stay go unheeded.

His 16-year-old grandson Tsendmandakh Altantsetseg has no romantic view of the traditional nomadic life.

"Nature is changing. The grasslands are turning into deserts. Rivers and streams are disappearing," he said.

"I'm planning to go to university in the city after I graduate. I'll follow my profession, work in the city and build a life there."

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