Herders in Mongolia have dealt with unpredictable weather, but as the climate becomes more erratic, they are forced to travel further and further to manage it.
The Mongolian nomadic people make up about a third. But their numbers are at risk of falling as the weather worsens and the land becomes harder to graze on for their animals.
The temperature in Mongolia has increased by 2. 2 degrees Celsius since 1940, and 90% of the grasslands in Mongolia have been impacted by desertification due to poor management and climate change.
Herders are also losing their livestock at alarming rates; as of March 2023, they have reported losing over 500,000 animals nationwide, according to the United Nations Development Program website. These losses are devastating for families who receive 80% of their income from selling animals and animal products.
Herders in Mongolia are nomadic, moving from place to place in search of the best lands for their animals.
They live while traveling in a tent known as a “ger.” The “ger” is made of sheepskin and features a ceiling hole to let smoke escape from the furnace.
The Ger can be set up and deconstructed easily, so that it follows the family wherever they go.
As there becomes less arable land due to climate change, herders have to travel further for food for their herd.
In 2020, Agvaantagtokh, a herder in Mongolia, and his family traveled 750 miles to find better land after losing most of their animals to a particularly bad winter.
More dust storms mean more desertification, and this increases the chances of animals being lost. Rivers and streams are drying up, prompting herders to make a six-mile trip to the nearest well.
Usually, streams are shared by all surrounding communities and their animals. Typically, there are 10 to 15 communities in a given area and a collective of 4,000 to 5,000 animals.
The United Nations Development Program invested in fencing and protecting springs.
The UNDP project has allowed for a reduction in the amount of animals that clog up streams and allows them to recover.
In one instance, a spring that was blocked by a large herd of animals was restored after being fenced and even formed two small lakes along the length of it, according to the UNDP.
Mongolia is also subject to severe winter storms known as dzuds.
Temperatures can drop below -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winds tear across the large fields without trees or tall vegetation to block their path.
Dzuds is the result of deteriorating winter weather conditions which cause livestock to die in large numbers.
Dzuds arrive from Mongolia’s unique landscape. The landlocked, semiarid country is subject to swings in temperature, and the heavy snow and harsh cold block pastures or kill animals entirely.
The dzud from 2009 to 2010 killed 22% of Mongolia’s livestock.
Dzuds occur more frequently, which makes it difficult for herders and their animals to survive.
Dzuds used to occur once or twice a decade, but since 2019, they’ve occurred annually.
Typically, communities would gather their horses together during the winter to protect them from the storms. This gathering served as a tradition of coming of age for young men in the community, and was also a strategic move.
As winters worsen and droughts become more intense, there isn’t enough grass to sustainably feed all the horses. Al Jazeera reported the winter herd of horses hasn’t occurred since 2018.
Younger generation still wants to follow in their parent’s footsteps, but are parents increasingly trying to give them other choices?
“I am glad that he wants to carry on our herding tradition,” Narangerel, a herder in Mongolia, said of his son to the UNDP. “However, I want to ensure that he receives a secondary education before he chooses to become a herder and wrestler.”
Herders are still finding ways to adapt to the changing environment.Motorbikes allow herders to track lost horses and sheep faster in dust storms.
In these communities horses are not fenced, and they may wander. Herders can use motorcycles to locate their horses and communicate where they are.
Herders are also using solar panels and satellite dishes to improve communication networks.
Mongolia relies on China and Russia for most of its imports. In 2021, 36% of their imports were from China, and 29% were from Russia.
Solar panels allow them to be energetically independent and provide energy to charge their phones, which they use to exchange information with community members, the Associated Press reported.
The energy provided by the solar panels also allows them to keep freezers running and preserve their meat for longer.
The United Nations also tries to find alternative economic options for herders.
The UNDP has set up the “ger and nature” initiative, which aims to “promote community-based eco and cultural tourism” by turning to the herders as tour guides.