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:
Web source:

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:
Web source:

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.


Master of CC, The Australian National University



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.

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.