Preserving Nomadic Tradition in a Changing Climate: The Path Forward for Mongolian Herders

September 25, 2023

Mongolian herders with their livestock on a degraded pasture.

UNDP Mongolia

Khishigjargal Kharkhuu: Programme Analyst (Climate Change), UNDP in Mongolia

Mongolian herders, whose livelihoods are deeply rooted in the respect for nature, are facing unprecedented challenges due to the accelerated impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. 

Harsh winters with heavy snowfall and limited livestock feed, along with prolonged harsh springs leading to difficulties in finding feed and grazing areas, have become significant struggles for herders. Consequently, herders are being forced to invest more in purchasing animal feed, significantly impacting their main source of economic activity derived from livestock. 

The scale of Mongolia's livestock has reached staggering heights, exceeding 71 million as of 2022 and surpassing pastureland capacity by 2.6 times. This has resulted in over 70% of the country's pastureland being degraded to some degree, with 23% severely degraded as of 2021 according to the Assessment of desertification and land degradation in Mongolia study.

Furthermore, data shows that 40.8% of natural disaster-related fatalities were attributed to water hazards. Additionally, climate-induced dzud (harsh winter) accounted for 87% of the livestock loss, while 87.4% of the total damages were caused by extreme weather events according to Mongolia's National Agency for Meteorology and Environment Monitoring, as of 2022. 

For the herders to preserve their traditional way of living and safeguard their livelihood amidst these climate-induced challenges, timely adoption of sustainable practices is no longer a choice but a necessity. 

Mongolian land is experiencing accelerated desertification and land degradation due to rising livestock numbers.

UNDP Mongolia

This means shifting focus from quantity to quality. While some herders have already started doing so, many are still keen to increase or keep large herd sizes in a hope to sustain their income level. 

To minimize the negative impacts of large herd sizes on pasturelands, forest regeneration, water availability, and biodiversity conservation, herders need to reduce the number of animals and improve their quality. This also reduces the cost of animal feed they need to purchase, and the labour required to maintain the herd size.

Another major economic incentive for this shift is through encouraging herders to produce climate-resilient and environmentally friendly products by applying the sustainability criteria. The knowledge and prioritization from buyers on these products will be the driving force for this shift to succeed. For instance, if cashmere buyers invest in nature-based solutions such as water adaptation measures, riparian area restoration, surface water harvesting, protection of the springs and river heads, streams, haymaking, and support to supplement the herders’ initiative for reducing the pressure to the pastureland, it will further incentivize herders to prioritize sustainable practices. 

In addition to environmental challenges, herders are facing social issues such as aging, a decline in marriages due to the increased migration to urban areas, and a need for upskilling, which significantly affect the long-term sustainability of their unique lifestyle. 

To address these challenges, UNDP, with support from the Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility, together with the Government of Mongolia is implementing projects to enhance livestock herding efficiency and sustainability. This includes building herders' capacity to process raw products and improve livestock quality, aligning with global emission reduction goals while increasing resilience to extreme weather conditions. 

Spring source fenced and protected from drying up with a support of UNDP’s ADAPT project funded by GCF

UNDP Mongolia

The essential shift towards sustainable practices and quality-focused mindsets relies significantly on the shoulders of young herders as they will inherit and carry forward the essential skills, traditional knowledge, and deep connection to the land, which are integral in ensuring the sustainability and continuity of this unique way of life. Therefore, their pivotal role in effecting transformative changes to herding traditions, preserving nature, and sustaining livelihoods while harmonizing with the nature cannot be understated.

Successful intervention will also require robust support and prioritization from the Government of Mongolia. Long-term policies and incentives need to be put in place to safeguard herder traditions and lifestyles while promoting sustainable practices and providing an incentive for young people to stay in the countryside.  This will ensure that herding practices are in harmony with the carrying capacity of pasturelands, thereby providing necessary habitats for biodiversity conservation and enhancing resilience to the changing climate. 

The collaboration between government bodies, NGOs, and herder communities is also vital to ensuring a resilient and sustainable future for Mongolia's herders. 

The future of Mongolian herders depends on their ability to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. To do so, they need to be well-equipped with climate data and knowledge so that they can make informed decisions to adapt their herding practices to harsh weather conditions and ensure the sustainable use of natural resources. This also remains a key area of focus for UNDP projects. 

Through these interventions, we hope to support Mongolia to chart the path forward to secure the sustainable future of Mongolia’s cherished nomadic herder culture and tradition and the livelihood of herders.

Mongolian Gers, symbolizing the traditional lifestyle of Mongolian herders.

UNDP Mongolia