ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN MONGOLIA

ENVIRONMENT OF MONGOLIA

Mongolia is — or at least was — one of the world’s most pollution free and environmentally unspoiled places on earth. In the early 1990s, the government set aside about one-eighth of the country as strictly protected and eventually plans to make 30 percent protected. Mountains near Ulaanbaatar have been protected from hunting and logging since the 12th century. The secret to Mongolia’s environmental success has mainly been a lack of people: less than 3 million of them in a country three times the size of France. Many parts of Mongolia are either untouched by humans and only visited from time to time by nomads.

However, Mongolia is not pollution free. Ulaanbaatar is sometimes engulfed in smog produced by large Soviet-built, coal-fired power plants as well as the hundred of thousands household coal-burning stoves. Some localised acid rain is produced by the same sources. Mining can be a dirty business in Mongolia. There are hundreds of mines and some of them are quite destructive. But otherwise Mongolia remains pristine. Another asset from 1n environmental point of view is its modest, relatively small economy.

Current environmental issues in Mongolia: 1) There are limited natural freshwater resources in some areas. 2) The policies of former Communist regimes promoted rapid urbanization and industrial growth that had negative effects on the environment. 3) The burning of soft coal in power plants and the lack of enforcement of environmental laws has severely polluted the air in Ulaanbaatar. 4) Deforestation, overgrazing, and the converting of virgin land to agricultural production increased soil erosion from wind and rain; 5) Desertification and mining activities had a deleterious effect on the environment. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic: “Though an admirable network of parks and reserves has been established in western Mongolia, the infrastructure to manage them is thin. "We don't have enough staff to protect their core wildlands from heavy livestock grazing, poaching, forest fires, and illegal woodcutting," explained Mantai Khavalkhan, the superintendent of four reserves in Mongolia's Altay region. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, June 2008 \~\]

Environment - international agreements: party to: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands, Whaling signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements. =

Environmental Concerns in Late Soviet-Era Mongolia

After many years of uncritical fostering of industrial and urban growth, Mongolia's authorities became aware in the late 1980s of the environmental costs of such policies. Belated Soviet concern over the pollution of Lake Baykal encouraged Mongolian actions to preserve their counterpart Hovsgol Nuur, which is linked to Lake Baykal through the Selenge Moron. A wool-scouring plant that had been discharging wastes into Hovsgol Nuur was closed; truck traffic on the winter ice was banned; and the shipping of oil in barges on the lake was stopped. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Deforestation in the Hangayn Nuruu, had reduced the flow of northern Mongolia's rivers, which were polluted by runoff from the fertilized and pesticide-treated grain fields along their banks, by industrial wastes, and by untreated sewage from growing settlements. Ulaanbaatar — located in a valley — with factories and 500,000 inhabitants who depend on soft coal, had severe air pollution, especially when the air was still and cold in winter. *

Deforestation, overgrazing of pastures, and efforts to increase grain and hay production by plowing up more virgin land had resulted in increased soil erosion, both from wind and from heavy downpours of the severe thunderstorms that bring much of Mongolia's rain. In the south, the desert area of the Gobi was expanding, threatening the fragile gobi pasturelands. The government responded by founding the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 1987 and by giving increased publicity to environmental issues. *

Environmental Actions in the Early Post-Soviet Mongolia

Clyde E. Goulden wrote in the New York Times: “After 70 years of political isolation while associated with the former Soviet Union, Mongolia opened its borders to international visitors in 1990. Among the first people invited into the country were scientists who could help Mongolia develop conservation plans to protect its rich biodiversity and almost pristine landscape. [Source: Clyde E. Goulden, New York Times, June 27, 2011. Goulden is the director of the Institute of Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecological Studies at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. ~~]

“ In 1994, scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences were invited to visit a large, beautiful lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol, and to join Mongolian and Russian scientists to study its biota. The project culminated in the description of many new species and numerous scientific publications, including the first book on the lake published in English, an effort financed by the National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education. ~~

“In 1998, the Mongolian government approved Lake Hovsgol National Park as its first long-term ecological research site for the monitoring of environmental changes, encouraging continued research efforts by international scientists.” ~~

Worsening Environmental Problems in Mongolia

William MacNamara wrote in the New York Times, “The concept of a “blue sky country” has become almost a cliché in presentations about Mongolia, the world’s fastest-growing economy last year. The phrase, which evokes the Montana-like landscape of the steppe, paints a picture of sunny investment horizons in this frontier democracy rich in coal, copper and gold. But visitors to this city, the capital of Mongolia, seldom find a blue sky today. It is smoggy, and soot rains down from the hills, as the poorest residents burn cheap brown coal to stay alive through the winter. [Source: William MacNamara, New York Times, December 10, 2012 ]

According to the OSCA: In the winter, the air quality in Ulaanbaatar is among the worst in the world. Air pollution levels often reach hazardous levels as a result of emissions from coal stoves, power plants, boilers, and vehicles. The poor air quality may trigger health problems (asthma, allergies, and other upper respiratory illnesses). Though the government is taking measures to reduce the pollution, there has not been significant, overall improvement, as growing urbanization means the influx of residents overwhelms efforts to reduce emissions at the individual household level. Winter visitors should use N95 complaint particle masks if spending extended periods outdoors in Ulaanbaatar. [Source: “Mongolia 2015 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State ^^^]

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “Environmentalists and government officials agree that the two decades of unbridled privatization and a boom in cashmere exports upended the traditional mix of livestock, which had long favored sheep over goats. In the past, sheep made up 80 percent of small-animal herds and goats the rest. But as the price of cashmere soared over the last decade, that ratio reversed, with devastating results for the ecology of the steppe. Voracious eaters, goats often destroy the grass by nibbling at the roots. Their sharp hooves also damage fragile pasture by breaking up the protective tangle of grass and lichens, allowing the wind to sweep away topsoil and encouraging desertification. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010 <+>]

“The other wildcard is climate change, which many herders blame for the increasingly inhospitable weather. Winters are longer and colder, the winds blow stronger and the summers, they say, are drier. “I don’t know what happened to the mild spring rains that the grass needs to drink,” said Degkhuu, 62, a lifelong herder who lost his entire flock. “Now, when the rains come they are heavy and create flash floods.” A recent World Bank study found that hundreds of rivers and lakes had disappeared in Mongolia, and the diversity of plant species had plummeted by a third since 1997, although researchers partly blamed the proliferation of goats. <+>

Arshad Sayed of the World Bank wrote: Today, Mongolian herders, who wear boots with upturned toes so as not to damage the land, face the extreme forces of the very nature they have traditionally worshipped. How much of this is Mother Nature and how much is a result of the continuing environmental degradation caused by man? Mongolian elders” have blamed some environmental problems not on nature but of “our carelessness and neglect of nature...looking to the future, other questions come to mind: Can fragile ecosystems like those in Mongolia continue to bear the burden of an ever increasing livestock herd that continues to deplete pastures and threaten long run sustainability? What is the balance between allowing a traditional culture to flourish yet ensuring that modern requirements –such as good quality, access to markets, and access to health and services– are provided in good measure to all, including the far flung herder? [Source: Arshad Sayed, World Bank, January 31, 2010 <>] Livestock and Overgrazing in Mongolia

There are something like 44 million sheep, goats, cattle, horses, yaks and camels in Mongolia. The large number of livestock animals has resulted in overgrazing and depletion of scarce water sources. Overgrazing in turns cases soil erosion, desertification and the replacement of good grazing grasses with nasty dry weed called “sword grass.”.

In the Soviet era, the amount of livestock was controlled. In the post Soviet era, there are more herders and more animals. Herders want acquire as many animals as possible to earn as much money as possible. All these animals eat a lot of grass and degrade the land. The success of the cashmere industry and increase in the number of destructive goats has been particularly devastating.

Inexperienced herders are also blamed. They put stress on scarce water supplies and grazing land by not moving their herds enough and focusing on cashmere goats which eat everything in sight, right down to the roots, and damage the ecology of the steppe more than other animals.

Relief for dzuds (droughts followed by cold winters that kill lots animals) and economic conditions that encourage herders to raise more animals have placed heavy demands on scarce pastures and water sources. Some herders have packed up and moved away from their traditional grazing lands to new grazing areas, putting stress on the environmens there. In 2001, nearly 8,000 people with 7 million livestock moved to other provinces.

Overgrazing by Cashmere Goats in Mongolia

Large cashmere goat herds have overgrazed areas in the Gobi desert. Goats are regarded as harmful to the environment because they pull up and consume the roots of grass. In addition to harming the environment the loss of grass means the goats get less from the land and consequently the quality of the cashmere decreases.

Marina Romanov wrote in Mongolia Briefing: The large population of cashmere goats is a problem because goats destroy grasslands and soil much more than any other traditional Mongolian livestock, such as sheep, cattle, horses and camels. Goats are much more voracious eaters and consume the root of the grass thereby stopping it from growing altogether.” [Source: Marina Romanov, Mongolia Briefing, February 24, 2012 ^|^]

According to USAID: The carrying capacity of Mongolia for all herd animals – goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and horses – is limited. One estimate of the total carrying capacity shows that in equivalent sheep forage units (SFUs), Mongolia’s herd size surpassed its carrying capacity in the mid to late 1990s and the SFUs were only reduced below the carrying capacity by the dzuds in the early 2000s. By 2004, however, with the recovery of the herds, SFUs again significantly surpass the estimated carrying capacity of Mongolia. The consequences of overgrazing can be quite severe. One study in Mongolia shows that a low culling rate (as is currently practiced) leads to an increase in flock size to 12 million (its current level) and then a precipitous decline to zero as Mongolia is denuded of forage and becomes a desert.[Source: USAID, May 2005 <^>]

Reporting edly from Tob Province, Kit Gillet of CNN wrote: “Forty-year-old Bayanmunkh has learnt the hard way about overgrazing. Riding slowly behind his herd of close to 2,000 animals across Mongolia's arid plains, the herder reminisces about how the land has changed. "Life has become much harder today. Nature is not what it was 10 years ago; there is more and more desert and less and less pastureland," he says. Now Bayanmunkh has made the tough decision to move far away from the increasingly sand-covered area his family has grazed in for generations to find a new home. [Source: Kit Gillet, CNN, September 13, 2010]

Jane Macartney wrote in The Times of London: “The World Bank warned of grave consequences for the environment and for farmers. “Mongolian herds will be at greater risk of severe weather conditions if growing livestock populations and deteriorating pastureland is not reversed,” it said in a report. A combination of the sharp hooves of the goats and their voracious consumption of all greenery — including roots — is harming the steppes. Sheep graze more lightly, skimming the leaves and grasses. [Source: Jane Macartney, The Times of London, August 8, 2009 +++]

Desertification in Mongolia

Mongolia suffers from desertification which has been linked to global warming and the overgrazing of livestock. By some estimates the Gobi Desert expands by more than 10,000 square kilometers per year, threatening many villages and livestock herders.

Jane Macartney wrote in The Times of London: “The Ministry of Nature and Environment has estimated that the grassland is thinning out across 75 per cent of this vast country, two thirds the size of Western Europe, while 7 per cent is already desert. This increases the risks posed by the devastating storms, or dzuds, that can wipe out entire flocks, while falling cashmere prices, as a result of the global financial crisis, could wreak havoc.[Source: Jane Macartney, The Times of London, August 8, 2009 +++]

“David Sheehy, of the US-based International Centre for the Advancement of Pastoral Systems, said in the World Bank report: “The decline in the quality of pastureland in Mongolia is of great concern. If the current trend continues, pastureland and herds may be more vulnerable to dzud and drought.” He was clear about the cause. “The growing number of goats has been a major reason behind this but there is also the general problem of too many livestock and the added impact of climate warming.” +++

“The UN Development Fund last year began a four-year project to combat desertification and improve land management, but Mongolian officials remain anxious. They have warned that as much as 96 per cent of the country could become desert if more is not done to stem the seemingly inexorable advance of the sands. “ +++

Cashmere Goats and Desertification in Mongolia

According to U.N. Development Program estimates, 90 percent of Mongolia is fragile dry-land; land under increasing threat from desertification. Part of the reason for this is thought to be global warming, but in Mongolia's case another significant factor is the rise of the global cashmere industry.

Marina Romanov wrote in Mongolia Briefing: Desertification is the largest environmental threat to the cashmere industry in Mongolia and there is no doubt that over-grazing is exacerbating the problem. About 21 percent of Mongolia’s land mass is affected by desertification to a medium extent, 3 percent is considerably affected, and 75 percent of Mongolia’s land mass is slightly affected by desertification. About 87 percent of desertification in Mongolia is caused by humans and only 13 percent due to nature. Over the last four decades, the area of land covered by sand has increased by 8.7 percent. [Source: Marina Romanov, Mongolia Briefing, February 24, 2012 ^|^]

Pastures account for a total of 80 percent of Mongolia’s land mass, while 30 percent of pastures have been affected by desertification. “The threats of land degradation and consequent desertification are becoming a serious obstacle to the growth of Mongolia,” says Shoko Noda, deputy resident representative of the UNDP. “It is about moving from quantity to quality of animals, but that is very difficult,” added Noda. “We have tried to discuss this with government, but it sounds as if we are trying to limit the earning potential of herders, who are also voters.”

High Number of Goats Linked to Desertification in Mongolia

Kit Gillet of CNN wrote: “The sheer number of animals grazing is putting a considerable strain on the limited pastureland. Goats are much more voracious eaters than other livestock, and consume the root of the grass thereby stopping it from growing altogether. "Every year an adult goat molts about 300 to 400 grams of raw, greasy cashmere," says Andrei Marin, a doctoral student writing a thesis on climate-change adaptation at the University of Bergen in Norway. "It is therefore one of the very few constants in herders' lives and their economy." [Source: Kit Gillet, CNN, September 13, 2010 |:|]

“Marin also suggests that goats are more efficient at securing food from low-productivity sites and are more likely to give birth to triplets and twins, thus helping herders recover faster in the aftermath of harsh winters like this last one. In 2005, USAID released a report which concluded: "The herding sector [in Mongolia] may well have surpassed the total herd size that can be sustained by Mongolia's pasturelands and its herds may already be causing desertification." |:|

“With livestock numbers increasing since then, the problem has only intensified, with previously green pastureland being swallowed by the sand, though not all see the Increasing goat population as key. "There are, to my knowledge, no studies that show goats have a more negative effect on pastures than other livestock," says Marin. |:|

“Others, however, put the blame firmly on the rising proportion of goats. "The growing number of goats has been a major reason behind [the decline in quality of Mongolian pastureland]," said David Sheehy, of the U.S.-based International Center for the Advancement of Pastoral Systems, in a World Bank report published late last year, "but there is also the general problem of too many livestock and the added impact of climate warming." |:|

“Following the return of free market capitalism, the size of the country's livestock population has grown dramatically -- almost doubling from approximately 23 million in 1993 to 44 million before this last winter. While policies to counter pastureland degradation have been implemented it is proving tough to limit the impact of overgrazing. "The threats of land degradation, and consequent desertification, are becoming a serious obstacle to the growth of Mongolia," says Shoko Noda, deputy resident representative of the UNDP. "This last winter was caused by a combination of global warming but also an unsustainable number of animals." |:|

Obstacles to Combating Goats-Linked Desertification in Mongolia

Kit Gillet of CNN wrote: But with demand for cashmere still high, and shop after shop in the capital of Ulaanbaatar selling Mongolian cashmere products, it will be hard to persuade herders to limit their involvement in the lucrative business. "It is about moving from quantity to quality of animals, but that is very difficult," says Noda. "We have tried to discuss this with government, but it sounds as if we are trying to limit the earning potential of herders, who are also voters." [Source: Kit Gillet, CNN, September 13, 2010 |:|]

So far, little has been done to persuade herders to rein in their herds, though they themselves are seeing the impact of the overgrazing as increasing amounts of pastureland is eaten up by the desert."For the moment there is enough pasture, but it is getting harder," says Ariunzaya, as he sits beside a small lake 20 kilometers up the road from Bayanmunkh's slow-moving herd. His own animals, 600 goats and 800 sheep, drink nearby. "More and more people are coming here because the land is getting worse elsewhere," he says.

According to USAID: “Ironically, at present the government of Mongolia highly subsidizes a sector that has significant negative externalities. A government of Mongolia mandated high level of taxes and charges for social benefits levied on workers in the formal sector has contributed to urban unemployment and underemployment. In turn the government of Mongolia subsidizes employment in the herding sector to alleviate the unemployment problems caused by other of its policies. Yet if these subsidies continue, there is every chance that they will turn Mongolia’s grazing lands into a desert. [Source: USAID, May 2005 <^>]

Global Warming in Mongolia

Extremely cold winters and desertification in Mongolia have been blamed on desertification. The winter of 2010 was the harshest in decades and a fifth of the country's livestock died. Associated Press reported: “The government blames global warming for a decrease in rainfall and says that rising average temperatures have caused many rivers and springs to dry up and snow cover to melt. It also says the frequency of natural disasters and drought has jumped.” [Source: Associated Press, August 29, 2010 +/+]

Nick Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post, “For thousands of years nomads have lived off the grasslands that sprinkle the Mongolian landscape. Herders and their livestock depend on the grass for their livelihood, but climate change has made living the nomadic lifestyle more challenging. Unusual weather patterns have led to dry soil and poor grass, resulting in large-scale livestock deaths in recent years. In the country’s capital, urbanization is moving at a rapid pace. Former herders pushed off their land now crowd an informal settlement for the promise of a new life. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 18, 2015]

Clyde E. Goulden wrote in the New York Times: “From 2002 to 2006, we began to recognize how much the climate of this region was changing. The whole-country analysis of temperature records indicated that Mongolia has warmed 2.14 degrees Celsius, or 3.85 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 1940s. In contrast, total precipitation has changed very little. [Source: Clyde E. Goulden, New York Times, June 27, 2011]

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “ Winters are longer and colder, the winds blow stronger and the summers, they say, are drier. “I don’t know what happened to the mild spring rains that the grass needs to drink,” said Degkhuu, 62, a lifelong herder who lost his entire flock. “Now, when the rains come they are heavy and create flash floods.” A recent World Bank study found that hundreds of rivers and lakes had disappeared in Mongolia, and the diversity of plant species had plummeted by a third since 1997, although researchers partly blamed the proliferation of goats.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010]

To highlight the problem of climate change in Mongolia, Paris-based Korean photographer Daesung Lee produced a series of “Living Dioramas in the Mongolian Desert”. in his artist statement he wrote: “35 percent of Mongolians are living a nomadic life. According to a survey made by the Mongolian government, around 850 lakes and 2000 rivers and streams have dried out. This loss of water is contributing to the desertification of Mongolia, as 25 percent of its land has turned into desert in the past 30 years. Potentially 75 percent of Mongolian territory is at risk of desertification. These environmental changes directly threaten the Mongolian nomadic way of life, which has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years.”

Addressing Global Warming in Mongolia

Clyde E. Goulden wrote in the New York Times: “In 2007 the Partnerships for International Research and Education-Mongolia project was born. This project focuses on three major components: experimental research on the effects of warming and precipitation changes on steppe and forest habitats of northern Mongolia, analysis of meteorological data from nearby monitoring sites, and interviews with nomadic herders to gauge their perceptions of these recent environmental changes.[Source: Clyde E. Goulden, New York Times, June 27, 2011 ***]

“The project also includes a strong educational component, providing undergraduate and graduate students a unique opportunity to travel and be involved in critical ecological research. It includes American scientists teaching courses at the National University of Mongolia, introducing students to theoretical research in ecology and biodiversity. ***

“Why is all this important? With the regional warming and changes in climate occurring in Mongolia, it is imperative that we understand the kinds of effects that could result there and elsewhere, including in the United States, and how to adapt to these effects. Mitigation is of major importance now and in the future, but adaptation — preparing for future changes in climate — is also critical to protect our water resources, food supplies and homes and to maintain our ability to travel without serious disruption. ***

Gobi Desert Meeting Draws Attention to Climate Change

In 2010, Associated Press reported from Gashuunii Khooloi, Mongolia (AP); “Top Mongolian officials donned dark green baseball caps reading "Save our planet" and set up chairs and tables in the sands of the Gobi desert for a Cabinet meeting aimed at drawing attention to climate change. The meeting of 12 government ministers was held in scorching heat Friday in Gashuunii Khooloi, a sandy valley in South Gobi province, about 415 miles (670 kilometers) south of Ulan-Bator, the country's capital. [Source: Associated Press, August 29, 2010 +/+]

“The ministers, dressed in suits and ties, arrived in the desert in jeeps after a 15-hour journey. Officials planted a Mongolian flag in the ground, set up long tables and chairs in the fine, golden sand and discussed climate change against the backdrop of a vast expanse of desert and a bright blue sky. "Mongolia is feeling the impact of global climate change," Prime Minister Batbold Sukhbaatar said at the one-hour meeting.+/+

“Batbold pointed to the recent winter as an example of problems Mongolia faces. The site for the meeting was chosen because parts of it used to be arable land, said Badarch, head of social policy for South Gobi province, who like some Mongolians uses only one name. "Five years ago, there used to grow many edible plants in this valley and there were fewer sand dunes. Now look here," he said. "The valley is completely covered with sand. The sand dunes are moving and taking more space each year." +/+

Minister of Natural Environment and Tourism Gansukh Luumed said Mongolian herders' traditional way of life is under threat. "Global climate change accelerates the desertification process in Mongolia. Currently, 70 percent of Mongolian land is affected by desertification." +/+

Mongolians Fight Global Warming with Giant Ice Cube

In 2011, Russell Tepper wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: “Ulaanbaatar is funding a $730,000 ‘ice shield’ initiative to counterbalance urban heat island effect and global warming and to lighten up the city’s air conditioning bill. The experiment is sort of like a scotch on the rocks, except instead of scotch it’s Mongolia, and instead of one cube or two it’s the artificially super-frozen Tuul river. The hope is that a giant ice sheet — known as a naled — will store the winter’s cold and cool the city through the hot months to come. [Source: Russell Tepper. Foreign Policy, November 15, 2011 \~\]

“At the end of November, the engineers of the Mongolian ECOS & EMI firm will begin recreating the natural naled-forming process by drilling holes through the ice covering the river Tuul. This will allow water to rise through the ice sheet in the warmer daytime temperatures and spread across its surface. Then the new layers will freeze during the nights and create an ever thickening ice shelf. \~\

“While naleds have served industrial applications before, as military bridges in North Korea or as platforms for drilling in Russia, the Ulaanbaatar climate experiment is unprecedented. But if the Tuul successfully cools down the spring and summer as it gradually melts, providing water and a hospitable microclimate, the practice may become more common in places like Mongolia where the environmental conditions are right.” \~\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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