Changes in the Mongolian Countryside

 

This year I spent some valuable time filming in the countryside during the Mongolian spring, from March until May. Changes in the Mongolian countryside are not as immediately evident as the rapid development of infrastructure and the polluted and clogged roads of the capital, Ulaanbaatar. When we drove into the river valley I had come to know so well, there were still ger (yurts) dotted in the same sheltered locations, while herds still grazed near the icy riverbanks.

When I was conducting fieldwork in the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia during 2005 and again in the spring of 2007, it was complicated to get into and out of remote herding encampments. The occasional herder had access to Russian motorbikes but they relied primarily on horses to visit neighbouring encampments, to ride to local Naadam festivals during the summer, and to herd the sheep, goats, cattle (including yaks) and horses. I relied on one of the herders with a coveted Russian jeep to get in and out. Often as many as twelve people would pack into the jeep with me, alongside dairy products and animal hides. Upon my return, the driver of the jeep joked about how many people would come along with me for the ride. Now almost every encampment has some form of motorised transport, making them less reliant on their horses.

I felt a stab of nostalgia when I found that the hand-made wooden carts that were used for moving peoples’ belongings during seasonal migrations were now only used as drying racks for dairy products, or left discarded and broken. I was told that Ulaanaa was the last ox used by one of the families I lived with. Ulaanaa, a large red ox, was remarkably complacent (nomkhon) and I would often lead him, with the wooden cart and water barrel, to collect water from the river. Ancestors of the family would have worked with oxen, just like Ulaanaa, for such tasks for centuries, possibly even thousands of years.

With such marked changes within ten years, I realised it was important to record herders riding about on horseback. The communication of a person on horseback is remarkable, as the horse intuitively knows to respond to a herder’s body language but not to the lasso-pole (uurga) held in front of its head, or to vocalisations directed at the herd. For Mongolians that still predominantly herd on horseback, much of the day is spent with an individual horse, following the tracks, signs and occasional vocalisations of the roaming herds across the mountainous landscape.

Spring snowstorms can be lethal for newborn animals. It is important for herders to check the herds and to make sure none are snowbound, or too far away from shelter. The video segment above (see: https://vimeo.com/228131918) was filmed using a GoPro camera fixed onto a young herder’s hat. Monkho must have forgotten his uurga, so uses an improvised stick from a nearby tree to signal to the herd. The calls and whistles differ depending upon whether he is communicating with the yak or horse herd, whether he is vocalising to the herd as a whole, or an individual animal. He says ‘chu, chu’ softly to a young foal when trying to redirect it back to the rest of the herd.

Just as has occurred throughout much of the world, people turn to the ease of motorised transport in favour of working with horses. If Mongolian herders increasingly rely on motorbikes to herd in future, some of the unique modes of communication with their herd animals will inevitably change, and the depth of knowledge relating to such close daily contact with horses may be lost.

Dr Natasha Fijn

Fejos Fellow in Ethnographic Film, Wenner-Gren Foundation (2017)

Mongolia Institute, The Australian National University

Are There Human Health Risks in Groundwater in Inner Mongolia?

Groundwater is an essential freshwater resource for many people in dry, remote, and sparsely populated regions. In the summer of 2015 and 2016 we observed the water quality of groundwater within an environmental science study and carried out questionnaires and spoken surveys about their lifestyle within an anthropological study in Inner Mongolia. The survey was conducted with local herders as citizen scientists. Before observations, the herders were trained in how to sample groundwater, how to use a measurement kit and how to take relevant notes.

 

People who live in Inner Mongolia have been required to settle due to the Chinese government’s land use system, established in the 1960’s. The herders began to heavily rely on groundwater as a means of survival. They could no longer use water from other sources, such as river water or snowmelt. In addition, along with economic development, people have begun digging several wells on their properties, which results in groundwater pollution caused by contaminants. This has become a serious problem in many of the areas we have conducted research; in fact we observed fluoriosis during our 2016 research. High levels of livestock waste were also observed around several wells, causing high nitrate ion concentrations in the groundwater.

 

Within a previous study in the South Gobi, our research indicated that, if groundwater is drunk by herders, the fluoride and nitrate ions in the groundwater posed a serious risk to human health. From the very beginning, we have only concentrated on the fluoride and nitrate ions in groundwater in order to estimate the human health risk levels to the population. In order to understand, not only water quality, but also eating habits, the herders’ lifestyle is essential for human health risk assessment. Our results reflect the potential health risks surrounding the drinking of groundwater within the herder population. Thanks to a combination of environmental science and ethnographic research, in collaboration with citizen scientists, this has been the strength of our research.

 

Results from our analysis found that fifty percent of the Mongolian herding population may be at risk, caused by fluoride ions in the groundwater and ten percent could be at risk to their health from increased nitrate ions in the groundwater. The local government has already provided water-filtering systems to some low-income families in the area. The herding community saythat they tried to use this system but they couldn’t use it effectively because the water flow of the system was very slow. They also say that the groundwater looks deceptively clean. Our results indicate that it is important to inform residents about the human health risks of drinking polluted groundwater and to provide the opportunity to think about how to reduce the health risks which may have already occurred through drinking contaminated groundwater.

Researching the quality of groundwater in herding communities in Inner Mongolia.

Research by Koyomi Nakazawa (Fukuoka Institute of Technology), Osamu Nagafuchi (Fukuoka Institute of Technology), Wuqirilteu (Australian National University), Koji Kanefuji (The Institute of Statistical Mathematics), Yi jin (Echoing Steppe NGO), Chen Ji-qun (Echoing Steppe NGO), Sasiqin (Inner Mongolia Agricultural University).

ANU Mongolia Update in Ulaanbaatar, 2016

Audience at Mongolia Update 2016
Audience at Mongolia Update 2016. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Mongolian Ambassador to Australia, Batbold.
Prof. Li Narangoa introducing former Ambassador to the UN, Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhan. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren.
One of the speakers, MP of Environment and Green Development, Oyun Sanjaasuren. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience
Dr Christian Sorace asking a question from the audience. Photo: Itgel Chuluunbaatar.
ANU Mongolia Update
Mr Amargargal Rinchinnyam, MP and former Prime Minister of Mongolia.
Current and former members of the ANU's Mongolia Institute
Current and former members of the ANU’s Mongolia Institute
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU
Former postgraduate students who studied at the ANU

Coping with emerging risk of natural disasters in Mongolia

Nomadic animal husbandry has a tradition spanning thousands of years in Mongolia, where herding communities are highly dependent on their livestock and therefore vulnerable to natural phenomena. With just over three million people and one of the sparsest per capita land areas in the world, the country is extremely vulnerable to climate change and its consequences. Mongolia remains highly exposed to global warming, visible in its degraded pastures and an increased frequency of summer droughts. Mongolia and Australia, despite a distance of thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, share common risks from natural disasters, including bush and fires on land serving as pasture for livestock, caused by a continuation of long and dry summer months. A cyclical drought has occurred every two to three years and almost 70-80 percent of pastureland has become degraded.

Web source: www.nema.gov.mn
Web source: www.nema.gov.mn

Bush fire disaster in Mongolia

Mongolia’s animal husbandry occupies twenty-six percent of the total GDP and includes one third of the population within the agriculture sector. According to statistics, Mongolia experiences over 3000 small to medium scale disaster incidents each year, with a large proportion related to fire. Bush fire causes great damage to society from inadvertent and intentional human-triggered fires. In the spring of 2015, a large scale bushfire spread from the southern province of Sukhbaatar, across to the provinces of Dornod and Khentii, where a large part of the area borders with Russia and China. Despite efforts and resources, such as fire prevention and response measures, the overall relief operation requires increased capacity to respond effectively in the next anticipated fire season in 2016.

Climate change induces summer drought phenomena, which ultimately prevents herder households from having sufficient hay and fodder reserves and from effectively protecting their livelihood through the long and harsh winter months. There are often a great number of livestock losses, causing a tremendous impact on herders’ livelihoods and agriculture.

 

Emerging risk of winter disaster: the “Dzud”

A harsh winter, referred to as “Dzud” in Mongolia, has been gradually recognized as one of the longest lasting nature-driven disasters (according to the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) in 2002). Dzud is primarily triggered by a meteorological phenomenon such as heavy snowfall, snow blizzards, extreme cold, and ice-bound pastures. During these phenomena, livestock are unable to graze due to a snow blanket, or ice covering. Secondly, it is triggered by the unavailability of pasture caused by droughts, desertification and land degradation.

Mongolia has recently experienced tremendous losses of livestock driven by the Dzud twice in the last two decades, in 2000 and again in 2009-2010. The 2009-2010 disaster meant 9.7 million livestock perished in a single winter season, causing thousands of herders to be without their livelihood. The weather during the summer of 2016, from late May to early September, is predicted to have high precipitation, with an increased capacity for pasture resources. This year is referred to as the “Monkey Year” in the traditional lunar calendar and the winter in such a Monkey Year is often harsh and devastating. Consequently, herder households tend to slaughter their animals (mostly cattle and sheep) to avoid future economic losses, as they believe the Dzud will cause their animals to perish. As a result, the meat supply in the market increases significantly, whilst there is not sufficient demand from the consumers, which means eventually the meat price in the country falls.

The world has become aware of the Dzud since the 2009-2010 as devastating but the phenomenon is very much country specific and perhaps unique to Mongolia, due to a reliance on a nomadic way of life and because Mongolia experiences extreme fluctuations of summer and winter temperatures. Mongolia is grateful for its world counterparts (such as Australia, Russia, China, and Japan) providing relief support in these times of disaster.

Web source: www.nema.gov.mn
Web source: www.nema.gov.mn

Government effort to cope with natural disasters

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) notes that rural residents in Mongolia face greater challenges to secure employment because of great distances from city centres, the high frequency of Dzud disasters, and poor access to markets. This has led many from the herding community migrating to urban areas to look for an alternative way of making a living. The Government of Mongolia prioritized environmental degradation as an emerging challenge, particularly with regard to the vulnerability of herder communities in relation to Dzud disasters. The government has, therefore, adopted a National Sustainable Development Strategy and Mongolian Action Plan for the Twenty-first Century (MAP-21) after the severe Dzud disaster of 2009-2010. Criticism from scientists, however, has been the policy gap of only addressing responses to these phenomena, rather than focusing on long-term consequences, prevention and mitigation. On a policy and execution level, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), a regulatory agency operated under the Deputy Premier’s Office, has a mandatory duty to reinforce policy and operational level disaster mitigation activities, tackling the frequent disasters of Dzud and bushfires. As it is operating under a semi-military status of a high level degree of readiness, it saves the lives of almost the same number of people it has on duty each year but future improvements of the service are undermined by financial constraints.

D.Baasansuren

Master of CC, The Australian National University

 

Sources:

United Nations Development Program (UNDP): “Dzud Early Recovery Project” document

International Organization of Migration “Displaced Rural Herder Communities Response Assessment and Intentions Survey (RAIS)”

Informal life politics in Mongolia

Resource development projects have brought severe contamination and destruction to the ecological environment across the grasslands of Mongolia. The everyday life and livelihood of local residents, including herding communities, is under excessive threat. Grassroots action to protect the grasslands and livelihoods have become increasingly strident in response to this escalating environmental pollution. My research focuses on case studies of informal life politics in Mongolia, including the country of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia) and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China (Inner Mongolia). Both regions have experienced rapid industrialization over the past decade, which involved a huge number of large-scale resource development projects

Along with environmental degradation in Inner Mongolia in the late 1990s, grassroots environmental protection activities have gradually emerged and developed. It expanded slowly to fight against industrial pollution on the grasslands and to protect herdsmen’s rights on their own land. This is an open network which involves people from different walks of life, such as local herdsmen, educated youth from Beijing, young ethnic Mongolians living in cities, professors, people from environmental NGOs and public interest law firms. The network plays an important role in linking environmental activities in diverse forms and various locations.

horse
Educated youth in Eastern Ujimchin grassland in the 1970s

From here, I would like to introduce a story of educated youth. The situation of industrial pollution in the grasslands and the plight of local herdsmen have caught the attention and sympathy of educated youth, city dwellers sent to live on the rural Inner Mongolian grasslands during the cultural revolution between the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them were from Beijing and therefore returned to Beijing after the Cultural Revolution.

When they saw the beautiful grassland where they lived being polluted, and their old friends and local herdsmen suffering from these changes, many educated youth stood up and actively involved themselves in grassland protection activities. One of them is Chen Jiqun, who is an artist living in Beijing. Over ten years, he travelled multiple times between Beijing and Eastern Ujimchin grassland, one thousand kilometers to the north of Beijing, to engage in a range of activities to help the herding community to win their case. He created and operated the website ‘Echoing Steppe’, to release information on the situation of industrial pollution in Eastern Ujimchin through photos and videos. Through the website, he also reports the functioning of surveillance on environment issues by the Eastern Ujimchin government. In addition, he provides herdsmen with legal assistance and helps them to conduct independent investigations. For instance, Chen Jiqun offers to help herders to contact lawyers, organize the translation of law books from Chinese to Mongolian, and distribute these books among the local community.  Meanwhile, he has facilitated collaborations between scholars from Beijing, Outer Mongolia and Korea, as well as Eastern Ujimchin local herdsmen to conduct independent investigations on industrial pollution and desertification of the grassland.

Mongolia has its own cultural and historical background, distinct from other cultural groups in the region. A study of grassroots action in Mongolia requires interpreting case studies in their historical context. Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia bear different and distinctive historical footprints. Inner Mongolia has adopted an economic development strategy focusing on resource development since the 1990s. Development projects in Inner Mongolia were often accompanied with a huge influx of Han immigrants into the grasslands, which has brought not only tangible damage on the environment but also intangible pressure on Mongolian language and culture.

Post by Wuqiriletu. Find out more about Wuqiriletu’s research work.