In traditional dress, nomadic herder Zorigoo Delger stands proudly next to one of his camels in Mongolia’s wilderness.
His family have been herders for centuries, but now the nomad way of life, of huge symbolic significance to the landlocked country, is at risk.
Climate driven extreme weather events, such as sandstorms and desertification, make life very difficult for the herders.
In March 2021, Mongolia experienced its worst sandstorm in a decade, which started in the Gobi Desert and reached most of northern China and even western parts of South Korea.
Zorigoo, a 45 year-old herder from Umnugobi, a province in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, says: “Everything went dark, it was like the sky and the earth had collapsed together and I could barely see.”
China News Service via Getty Images)
It is common for herds to go missing during such storms, but Zorigoo was more worried about his fellow herders.
“It’s very dangerous for herders to be out in the open during big storms,” he adds.
During big storms where airborne dust and sand covers the sky and blocks the sunlight, sand particles fly at such a high speed you can barely open your eyes.
The best the herders can do is huddle in the middle of their animals and ride it out.
The storm, which was the worst in over a decade, claimed the lives of 10 herders and lasted for one day and one night in the region of Khongoriin Gol, where Zorigoo lives.
“The electricity got cut off because of the storm and we couldn’t leave our home because the wind was so strong and it was so dark,” Zorigoo says.
“I couldn’t see even 10 steps ahead of me. When the storm cleared, there was sand and dust everywhere.”
Sandstorm, which is exacerbated by desertification, is one of the biggest challenges Mongolia is facing as a result of its unique climate and human activity.
Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Mongolia, a landlocked country nestled between Russia and China, covering over 1.5 million square km with only just about 3.3 millions of population, is one of the driest countries in the world.
Because of its semi-arid and dry climate, Mongolia has been hit quite hard by climate change.
The country has experienced a temperature increase of 2.24C between 1950 – 2015, which is more than two times the global average, and the average annual precipitation reported dropped by 7 per cent.
Predictions the average warming could exceed 5C by the end of the century in Mongolia paints a very uncertain future for its people.
Amid the further drying of Gobi and frequent sandstorms, Zorigoo is concerned about drought and the subsequent pasture loss.
2020 and 2021 had seen exceptionally dry summers for Mongolia, to the point there were wildfires everywhere and the vast Mongolian plateau had barely any green.
Traditional Mongolian herders like Zorigoo are susceptible to any kind of climate change – weather fluctuations, natural disasters such as drought, sand and snowstorms and extremely cold winters.
All of these issues are affecting native plants and crops.
Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Zorigoo says: “Some plants that used to grow in the wild have not been seen in the last decade, and the sand has been expanding so much that the local springs and oases have dried up, and herders have even harder time finding decent pasture land for their herds.”
He has also noticed the change in the seasonal cycle, which is driving herding families into the capital city.
“The rain comes as late as late July and August, which leaves too little green and too little time for the herds to fatten up before winter comes.
“Herders don’t want their children to follow their path anymore, traditional herders like myself are becoming fewer and fewer,” says Zorigoo.
Zorigoo has observed the weather becoming hotter and drier in the last two decades.
Some semi-nomadic herder families who would spend the summer with Zorigoo have had to move as far as 500km to find decent pasture for their livestock before the harsh winter came.
If desertification continues to expand and the intensity and frequency of climate phenomena increases, which according to future climate projections it will, Gobi herders would have to move even further.
The Daily Mirror’s NextGen International project builds on the success of our UK initiative, where we gave young people a voice and published the stories that matter to them.
Now the project has gone global, focusing on the climate emergency and empowering young people in six countries to tell their stories of how they have been affected by the crisis.
Countries taking part in the project are the Solomon Islands, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Nepal, Mongolia and Ecuador.
The project was originally working with a group of six teenagers in Kabul, Afghanistan but mid through the project in August, Kabul fell to the Taliban and it was no longer safe for the young people to continue.
Afghanistan was chosen because it is one of the countries most affected by climate change in the world.
It is hugely regrettable the project was unable to complete in the country but the safety of the young people involved was paramount.
We have been working with our charity partners Save the Children, Raleigh International and Hivos.
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The migration and concentration of herders creates an issue of overgrazing, which contributes to the process of desertification.
Zorigoo worries that the overgrazing by herders with 1,000-2,000 livestock would leave no space and no nourishment for his herd.
Another herder, Batpurev Lkhagvasuren, 45, of Selenge soum of Bulgan province, says deforestation is another huge problem.
Speaking at their family’s winter home near Ikh Khailantai forest, which belonged to his father, he says: “My wife Khandaa is a local ranger who looks after the forest and monitors logging. Our village’s main source of income is logging and it is becoming more and more intense.
“Until the 90s, the forest was much denser, thus the morning fog in summer used to sit in the valley until 11am.
“Deforestation and overgrazing has decreased plant diversity here, therefore the quality of forage is becoming poor.
“The dry summer of 2019 didn’t let us harvest much forage and the two-day storm at the end of winter took down many of our villagers’ cattle and calves.
“Such loss leads herders to seek another source of income, which is logging. This vicious cycle has to be broken. I am going to try to reintroduce some plants that we call Gogod and Hunheel which used to grow here.”
The herders of Mongolia are living through climate change and have experienced the challenges it has brought.
And they are trying to mitigate it by planting trees where and when they can.
But they also say there is a distinct lack of sense of urgency at both the policy and grassroots level.
To protect Mongolia’s nomadic herders, drastic action must be taken before their heritage is lost forever.
‘Young people are shunning traditional herding for urban life’ by Sainsaana Tselmuun, 19
I was born and raised in Ulaanbaatar city, with no relatives in the countryside where the air is clearer.
My childhood was spent playing computer games indoors mostly, and even in the summer holidays we would rarely go to the country.
So I have had very limited interaction with the traditional herders of my country and know little about their daily lives.
Last year, with Raleigh Mongolia program in Bulgan provinces, I had the opportunity to meet with herders and to spend two weeks with them.
There, I discovered nature, the environment, and the unique lifestyle of our herders.
Inspired by that trip, a few weeks ago I packed a bag and jumped on a local bus to the central Tuv province to meet local people about the challenges of the climate crisis and how they are adapting.
Quite shy by nature, I was not sure if any herders would talk to me.
But I found they were only too willing to share their experiences of how climate change is affecting their lives.
Mongolian unique nomadic lifestyle is under threat and the natural environment associated with it is in danger. This affects herders who are so dependent on livestock.
Dugar Ganbold, 65, is a herder from the village of Batsumber Soum in Tuv province.
As we talked, Dugar was tending to his yaks and cows. With about 20 yaks in his herd, he makes just enough to scrape by.
Dugar has seen major changes during his 60 plus years on the vast grassland, with shifts from communism to democracy impacting one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures.
He says: “When I was a child you couldn’t see the sheep in the grass.
“Now look at what we have only dust and soil. The temperature rose causing drier weather leading to more dust storms”.
Dugar says he and his fellow herders are extremely worried about climate change as droughts, harsh winters, and over-grazing threaten traditional livelihoods.
It is driving younger people to the over-crowded capital city of Ulaanbaatar, with air pollution and unemployment.
About one quarter of Mongolians still live a traditional nomadic life.
But life is changing fast and about 60,000 herders a year have moved to the city since 2001, according to Ulaanbaatar’s Deputy Mayor office.
This also increased the frequency of cold and snow damage from so-called dzuds – the name for a severe winter that comes after a summer drought.
Dugar said he can read the signs of climate change around Batsumber soum.
Some plants are disappearing, including those used in traditional medicines.
“Before we used to have Tavan salaa, an herb which we would boil and drink for stomach problems. Now I can’t find it anymore,” Dugar says.
But it is not just the damage to livestock and the land concerning herders but social changes.
The young generation, including his grandchildren, are not willing to stay in the traditional nomadic lifestyle.
They are interested in modern schools, foreign languages, and intellectual technologies such as smart phones and computer games.
Dugar says he is seeking ways to revive and sustain the nomadic lifestyle, but knows this won’t be easy.
He said that he is also looking for an alternative way to introduce partially converted farming.
Indeed, I saw lights of hope and determination in his eyes.
As I made my way from the small farming village and back to the big city, I thought about possible solutions and how me and my fellow youth can take part in this change.
A solid adaptation plan must be put in place in order to mitigate the harsh climate change in Mongolia.
Also, a government strategy should address the younger generation to eliminate the disparity among the rural and urban areas by creating education and employment opportunities to mitigate the migration.
In addition, a sustainable development plan should be introduced for the herders to ensure stable income.
Modern new technologies, IT solutions and know-hows can contribute to the initiative.
If my generation was in power, I have faith we would make these solutions a reality.
I hope our politicians listen to our voices to bring about this vital change, before Mongolia loses its cultural identity.
Raleigh International is a youth action organisation supporting a global movement of young people to take action on the issues they care about.
Young people are at the forefront of building a fairer, more inclusive and greener world, and are actively confronting the planet’s most urgent crises.
Action Not Excuses is Raleigh International’s global youth-led environmental campaign supporting 100,000 young people to create green jobs, fight for zero waste and pollution, and reverse deforestation.
Action Not Excuses connects young people around the world to build the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable world, and has supported young people in Nicaragua, Mongolia, Nepal, Tanzania, Malaysia, Costa Rica and the UK to launch climate campaigns taking urgent action for the environment.
Urban Nomads is the Action Not Excuses campaign led by young people in Mongolia to decrease migration flow from Mongolia’s countryside to the cities. High rates of migration results in rising air pollution and overpopulation in Mongolia’s capital, as well as the underpopulation of young people in rural areas.
Through Urban Nomads, Mongolian youth are inspiring young people to recognise the potential of the resources which they can access in their own rural hometowns, to lower migration and support the wider environment in Mongolia.