Nomads no more

Climate change is pushing Mongolia’s herders into poverty. To protect nomadic life and our planet, the world must act now.

September 25, 2018

For world leaders gathering this week at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), climate change is a critical issue. Yet away from the noise of New York, on Mongolia’s wind-swept steppe, it is already an existential threat.

Mongolia is one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming. In the last 70 years, its temperatures have climbed three times faster than the world’s average, rising more than 2 degrees centigrade and surpassing the global threshold.

This week, a new film highlighting Mongolia’s climate plight will screen at the UNGA. Produced by Raw Cinematics and supported by UNDP Mongolia, Blue Gold examines the effects of global warming in the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky, where glaciers are melting away, shrinking by 40 percent since the 1990s. For nomadic herders downstream, their road to disappearance spells disaster; glaciers are reservoirs providing safe drinking water – blue gold – during Mongolia’s scorching summers.

On the eve of the Global Climate Action Summit two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General António Guterres sounded the alarm on climate change and called for urgent action. While more than 100 countries have ratified the Paris climate agreement, representing 77 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, he noted: “What is missing is leadership, a sense of urgency and a true commitment to a decisive, multilateral response.”

In Mongolia, climate change is moving faster than we are. Both its summers and winters are growing harsher. In 2017, we saw the hottest summer in half century, with two thirds of the country stricken by drought, while desertification has already turned a quarter of its land to desert, according to official data. Without enough grass, animals lack the fodder to survive the world’s coldest winter, when temperatures plunge below minus 40 degrees centigrade.

As a result, nomadic herders – now about a third of Mongolia’s population – whose livelihoods depend on their animals, are finding their centuries-old way life at risk. With the ecosystems their livelihoods depend on eroding, a growing number are migrating to cities.  Today, half the country’s population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, where many struggle to find work and live in tented gers, without sanitation, running water or central heating.

In the freezing winter, many in ger districts burn coal, the cheapest way to keep warm. This contributes to 80 percent of Ulaanbaatar’s winter emissions, giving it the some of the worst air pollution on earth, exceeding 60 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit in one district during the week of 18-24 December 2017, according to Mongolia Meteorological Agency (NAMEM).

Blue Gold documents the impacts of climate change on Mongolia's mountain glaciers. The film is being launched during the 2018 UN General Assembly.

Mongolia cannot afford climate-induced poverty or pollution. Already, it is grappling with a sharp rise in poverty, jumping 40 percent between 2014 and 2016 during an economic crisis. In 2016, Mongolia ranked equally wtih China on the Human Development Index (HDI) - 90th of 189 countries. By 2018, it slipped to 92nd place, while China jumped to 86th. At a precarious time in its economic recovery, climate change threatens to reverse Mongolia’s development further.

To address these challenges, Mongolia has committed to cutting emissions by 14 percent and ramping up renewables, such as solar and wind, by 2030.  These mitigation measures are included in Mongolia’s Sustainable Development Vision 2030, bringing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into the national context. Together with the Global Environment Facility, UNDP is working with the Government of Mongolia to introduce new building codes, construction technologies and designs for energy efficient buildings.

Adapting to a changing climate is also crucial. In an effort to better manage water amid scarcity, we are also carrying out an Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) project supported by the Adaptation Fund, to help herding communities use their water resources sustainably.

While local actions like these are important, a global problem calls for global solutions. Large countries especially must cut emissions further and support small nations like Mongolia financially as they adapt.

The SDGs represent a promise: to leave no one behind. That promise can only be kept by fighting climate change as a united community, from cities to steppes.

A picture (or in this case, a film) is worth a thousand words. So we’re heading to the UNGA to show world leaders what is at stake for Mongolia.

Follow our journey on Facebook, on Twitter and YouTube.

About the aurthor
Beate Trankmann is the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Mongolia. Ms.Trankmann has held senior management positions at UNDP since the late 1990s, in various Asian countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and China. Follow her on Twitter: @beatetrankmann