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Mongolia is currently in the midst of a major natural disaster that we’ve heard little about in the news, but that has already resulted in the death of 4.5 million livestock animals, 10 percent of the country’s livestock population. 

The United Nations estimates 120,000 Mongolian herders have lost more than half of their herds in the last year. Some have estimated that half of all livestock in Mongolia could be dead by spring. Regardless of the total livestock losses, this tragedy has the potential to cause massive human famine.

The livestock deaths are being caused by a set of weather events called dzud, the combination of a drought last summer followed by a harsh winter with bitterly cold temperatures and heavy snow. The summer drought produced low amounts of livestock forage, weakening the cattle and preventing them from being able to survive the harsh winter.

Dzuds are not new to Mongolians — they have a specific word for it. But this dzud is particularly bad, and may have new root causes:

•  Climate change may be making dzud more likely to occur in Mongolia. Increasing summer temperatures evaporate water that’s needed to produce grass for livestock forage. And future climate models project that winter snow will substantially increase — potentially more than doubling by the 2080s. A warm and dry summer combined with heavy winter snow is a recipe for future dzud disasters.

•  Increases in livestock numbers and overgrazing are putting more pressure on available forage. From the 1960s to early 1990s, livestock numbers were stable in Mongolia. But after the country’s 1990 democratic revolution, livestock numbers have grown substantially.

•  The revolution also led to changes in Mongolia’s herding management — from a centrally planned collective system that made an effort to mitigate natural effects to a market approach in which each herder determines his interaction with the environment. This new system has resulted in herders becoming more sedentary and increasing their grazing pressure on the grasslands. In turn, this increase in livestock numbers and grazing concentration has led to increased environmental impact which, when coupled with summer drought and heavy winter snowstorms, also helps to exacerbate the impact of dzud.

It is clear that these herders strongly depend on nature to support their livelihoods. So I think there is an opportunity here to use ecosystem-based solutions to help make the livelihoods of Mongolian herders more resilient to dzud. Here are some ways:

•  Sustainable and climate-resilient grazing management is needed. Grazing must be on par with the productivity of the grassland systems to ensure they are not overgrazed. Productivity can vary widely from year to year based on climate, and so the grazing management needs to be flexible and innovative to ensure the grasslands are not overgrazed during bad years. The Nature Conservancy’s Africa Program has experience developing sustainable grazing plans for local herders in partnership with the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya — and this type of approach could be used in Mongolia.

•  Grassland conservation can be integrated into grazing management through the use of “grass banks.” Strategically chosen areas can be set aside for wildlife and not grazed during most years, and then these bank areas can be used for grazing in drought years when there is not enough forage for livestock. This can be thought of as type of insurance policy to help herders and their livestock survive tough years. (See my colleague Eddie Game’s recent Cool Green Science post about how this could work in Africa as well.)

•  Monitoring of the grasslands systems is important, both on short- and long-time scales. I think we can track the long-term health of grassland systems (and provide feedback to grazing management plans) in two ways: 1) an “early warning” system that can detect and communicate when summer drought is likely, so herders can modify their grazing accordingly; and 2) long-term monitoring from a combination of remote-sensing technologies and on-the-ground observations.

The bottom line is that overgrazed and degraded grasslands are not good for either herders or wildlife. Herders have sustainably grazed these grasslands in harmony with nature for centuries. However, with increased grazing pressure and climate change, these systems are being pushed to the edge and beyond what they are capable of supporting.

In addition, herders are competing for scarce water resources with mineral and oil development by private industry. Solving these problems will take massive effort and strong partnerships between the conservation organizations, herding communities, local organizations, private industry and government agencies. The Nature Conservancy can help with its wealth of on-the-ground strategic planning experience and tools, such as ecosystem-based adaptation, Conservation by Design and Development by Design.

People who are so dependent on nature vividly show why functioning ecosystems are important not only for wildlife, but also for human livelihoods. Dzud and other climate-related impacts are going to continue to strike Mongolia, likely even more strongly than in the past. But there are actions that can be taken to help herders cope with climate.

Conservation organizations have an opportunity here to show how proper management and protection of nature can help make people more resilient to climate change.

— Text by Evan GirvetzCool Green Science Blog