- 06 January 2005
Jargal Jamsranjav grew up in the forested area of northern Mongolia and is the grandchild of nomadic herders. She developed an interest in environmental issues at a very young age, studying medicinal plants with her mother. In addition to the award from the Whitley Fund for Nature (formerly know as the Whitley-Laing Foundation), Jargal has also received the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre's Chevening Scholarship in Biodiversity. As of January 2005, she is working on projects in the Gobi Desert to improve community livelihoods, and training nomadic herders in wildlife monitoring.
What are the main changes in weather and climate that the nomadic herders are currently experiencing in Mongolia?
Drought has become far more frequent in the Gobi Desert because of climate change. Some summers there has been no rain at all. This means that vascular plants (bushes, shrubs, herbs and grasses) have not been generating or growing well. The nomadic herders are heavily reliant upon the trees in the Gobi Desert for fuel, but because of the drought the trees and bushes can't re-generate. The bushes and trees are also crucial for holding the sand and soil in place, retaining water, and moderating the microclimate. Drought causes a vicious cycle so trees can not generate in the Gobi Desert which reinforces desertification.
Droughts have also caused small streams and rivers to dry up. The nomadic people are heavily reliant upon these water sources in summer, along with a number of wells. When the streams dry up there is heavy congestion of livestock around the wells and any remaining streams, leading to over-grazing and further land erosion.
According to some of the older herders and village people sandstorms have also become more frequent in the last 20 years especially in spring, - they said that when they were young there was a sandstorm once in each spring but now the storms are happening once in each month and sometimes twice a month during spring. The sandstorms are terrible, people cannot go outside because you can't see anything, and the livestock are not able to go out to feed. Sometimes the sandstorms last for two or three days but they can even last for up to a week.
What do the people in Mongolia think is causing these more frequent storms?
They do not know the exact reason behind these storms. It depends on who you speak with. Some of the herders are well educated and have access to television, and they guess that it is because of climate change. Others believe in superstitions, and they think that the natural world is angry because people are not treating it well. Most people in Mongolia believe that since the fall of communism 15 years ago there have been rapid changes in society that have led people to have an increasing disregard for nature.
What have been the main impacts of these changes in climate on the people of the Gobi Desert?
Drought has very strong impacts on the herders because sometimes they have to travel very long distances to access water and fuel wood, which can be very tiring. Also, if not many plants are growing the livestock cannot gain the weight that they need to make it through the long harsh winters. In some areas of Mongolia herders have completely lost their livestock due to drought and harsh winters. The herders in Mongolia are very sensitive to climate effects because their livestock are entirely dependent on naturally growing vegetation as opposed to crops.
Does this impact human health in the region?
This does not lead to nutrition problems in the nomadic people who choose to stay in the countryside, as they are still able to hunt wild animals. As well, Mongolians have very strong extended families, so when one couple has a problem with their livestock their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins will help them.
However, those who lose their livestock and then choose to move to the city to find employment can suffer from nutrition problems. Often families cannot find work due to a lack of skills and this can lead to poverty and starvation, particularly in children - who are often forced out into the streets.
Are there other climate impacts in Mongolia that the people are observing?
Mongolia has three main natural regions: forested areas, grassland steppe, and the desert steppe where I currently work. About eight percent of Mongolia is covered by larch and pine forests and in the last few years much of this forested area has become infected by Siberian moths. The larvae of these species increase in number during dry years, and continued years of drought have allowed them to multiply. These pests eat through the forest's green leaves and needles, meaning that the forests cannot hold the same amount of rain water, which leads to shrinking of the overall forested area, and flooding in the mountainous area of the country. This has been exacerbated due to the increased number of wildfires in the area between 1996 and 2000 due to drought.
There have also been visible changes to the soil fauna and flora in the forests, because increased temperatures are allowing the permafrost to melt during the summertime. Increased temperatures have also caused glaciers to melt in the northwestern part of Mongolia.
How is the work you are doing in Mongolia seeking to address the causes and impacts of climate change in the region?
The aim of project in the Little Gobi Protected Area is to help nomadic people to improve their standard of living, and to encourage them to do conservation work. I work with both nomadic herders and the people of the village of Nomgom. I use a method called participatory rural appraisal which allows for the local community and herder groups to determine which projects to undertake - and then I help them to organise and plan the activities.
After several sandstorms the village has become covered in sand and loose soil and so the villagers have decided to plant trees to help the area retain water and soil. Last years they planted a small number of trees (elm and poplar) to see if it would be successful, and since they were able to grow, the village has decided to embark on a larger scale tree planting effort. Some of money from the Whitley Award will go toward tree planting in Nomgom village.
Some of the money will also go toward fixing some of the wells in the area. In the past these were repaired through subsidies from the government, but since the fall of communism they have not been taken care of. This is important for conserving wild mammals such as the wild Asiatic ass, black tailed gazelle and wild bactrian camel which currently have to compete with herders for the open water sources such as small streams and rivers that have not dried up.
In addition to tree planting the village dwellers also want to coordinate a waste management project. They are first going to undertake a pilot project for the management of household waste for about 50 families, and then if it is successful, they will expand this management system among the rest of the village dwellers. The waste management system will include: rubbish collection, teaching families how to separate different kinds of waste, and the use of waste ash for construction bricks (due to the lack of wood available in the Gobi desert).
The people in the village and the herders are also interested in learning how to build fuel efficient stoves. Introducing fuel efficiency in Mongolia is very important because, as I mentioned, drought and constant consumption are reducing the availability of fuel wood. I am bringing trainers from Ulan Bator and other areas in Mongolia who will teach the local people to make these stoves, and give them the skills to disseminate these methods to the wider community. The use of fuel efficient stoves will save a large number of trees and bushes in the Gobi Desert.
How extensive is the use of renewable energy in the Gobi Desert?
In the past five years a number of the nomadic herders have acquired solar power and wind generators - but it is only the more affluent families who can afford to buy these technologies. They obtain solar panels and wind turbines by selling cashmere to the Chinese.
The use of these power sources has been very important for the nomadic people, particularly for women. Before they only had candle light in the evening so after dark there was not enough light to make embroidery and clothing, or other work they enjoy. These new sources of energy are particularly important in the wintertime when the nights are very long. This also allows some families to have access to television, and neighboring families will travel distances of as much as five kilometers by camel to watch television with those who have access!
On the other hand, currently all the power in the village of Nomgom comes from a diesel generator which only allows for the use of electricity between 8 to 11 pm. Right now my project doesn't work to introduce renewable energy as we are limited to a small number of activities. In the future, if I am able to get continuation funds, and the villagers express interest, I will look more at fuel efficiency and other energy issues.
The views presented in the Viewpoint Series are not necessarily representative of the views of The Climate Group.