|Mongolian livestock herders will be at greater risk of severe weather conditions if issues are not addressed urgently. (Photo courtesy of Nomad Tales under a Creative Commons license)
In my last blog post, I wrote about UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s recent visit to Mongolia, in which he discussed the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Around the time of his visit, the World Bank issued a press release with preliminary results from a study, released under our Netherlands-Mongolia Trust Fund for Environment Reform, otherwise known as NEMO (nothing to do with Disney’s cute fish). One wouldn’t normally go public on something unfinished but, encouraged by our erstwhile Director for China and Mongolia, David Dollar we felt that even the preliminary results were important and worth sharing.
We found that Mongolian livestock herders will be at greater risk of severe weather conditions if the growing livestock populations and deteriorating rangeland are not addressed urgently. Similar statements have been made in the past, but the new results from the field appear to be the first quantitative evidence from long-term monitoring plots. The NEMO work measured the vegetation in multiple plots set up by the Asian Development Bank in 1998 but not revisited until now. So far the plots in the Forest-Steppe region of Zavkhan aimag (province) and in the Desert of Gobi Altai aimag have been re-measured and in both areas the researchers had found a disturbing decline in rangeland quality.
Measurements in both areas indicate that the total number of plant species comprising forage declined by more than 33% in the 11 years since the initial measurements, and bare soil and rock had increased. In addition, the plant species preferred by livestock were less abundant on all seasonal rangelands for the desert zone. As for rangeland productivity, it had declined substantially in both areas on winter and transitional rangelands, while it increased slightly on summer rangeland due to the increased presence of certain plant species which livestock did not eat (especially in the forest steppe zone).
The NEMO team is led by Dennis Sheehy of the US-based International Center for the Advancement of Pastoral Systems of Wallowa, Oregon. Dennis is an unusual World Bank consultant in that he manages to combine working for us for some months of each year with running a cattle ranch near Hell’s Canyon in Oregon. When one calls him he is more likely to answer the phone panting from having just wrestled with calves prior to branding them than sitting behind a desk. When on the steppe of Mongolia, he connects well with the herders because he and they can share concerns about the thickness of fat on animals entering the harsh winter or about diseases. Dennis works with a Mongolian scientist, Daalkhaijav Damiran, who is now at the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.
They reckon that the increase in livestock numbers and goat dominance in herds combined with the increasingly dry climate are unequivocally detrimental to available rangeland in these regions. If the current trends continue (and there is no contrary sign), then rangeland and herds may be more vulnerable to severe winter events such as deep snow or ice (known as dzud) and to drought. The recent large-scale dzud during 1999 to 2001 claimed the lives of almost 35% of the country’s livestock. One can argue that the numbers of livestock were then (and are again) at unsustainable levels, but there’s no getting away from the human impact such colossal losses have. One of the adaptation steps taken has been through our innovative Index-based Livestock Insurance Project but a necessary step in this is to factor in the effects of climate change.
So, the rangelands have two potent forces affecting them – climate change and grazing – and disaggregating their effects is not easy. However, some plant communities do respond in specific ways to heavy grazing and those changes are different from those caused by drying and warming. In fact, the effects of heavy grazing probably mask changes wrought by changes in climate. Simply trying to establish principles of proper grazing management (which herders likely know better than ‘experts’) misses the confounding factors of rural-urban migration, property rights, infrastructure development and national development policies. Efforts to adapt to rangeland deterioration need to involve both herders and administrators. Improving the capacity of government staff at the sub-district level to manage rangelands, application of rangeland improvement and livestock grazing management strategies, and wildlife conservation are all necessary components of a rangeland rehabilitation program.
I’m really glad we’ve been able to start the monitoring of the plots and their value will increase each time they are measured. Although representative, they don’t cover the whole country and ideally more should be established. They should be monitored regularly (perhaps by herders themselves using standard protocols) to help distinguish and short- and long-term changes and to inform adaptive strategies. Either way there will have to be improved awareness of the changes occurring, and better coordinated responses to changing climate and climatic extremes.
Work will continue on other plots this year in Zavkhan and Tuv aimags over the summer and the final report is expected to be out at the end of this year – if Dennis’ cattle don’t cause him too much trouble.