Earth Day reflections from Ulaanbaatar: The balance of humans and nature in Mongolia

I started this post on Earth Day, April 22, but didn’t get very far. But since April is Earth Month, or, as I am fond of saying (to my daughter’s irritation sometimes), “Every day is Earth Day,” it’s not too late to post. Also, it’s still Earth Day in the USA as I’m writing this.

This past weekend was Easter weekend, and almost everyone I know seemed to be posting their beautiful spring garden photos on Facebook and Instagram. Radiant flowers, vibrant grass, budding trees. Here in Mongolia, it’s starting to feel like spring, too. It’s starting to be above freezing every day, during the day (even into the 60s Fahrenheit), and we had one night where it didn’t dip below freezing as well. The daylight hours are getting longer at what feels like a ridiculous pace for someone who is used to living closer to the equator. The sun is rising before 6:00 am and setting close to 8:00 pm, which is about mid-summer in San Diego.

But it’s still brown. And this morning (April 23), we woke up to a bit of snow. It’s pretty, and it won’t last long, and it’s providing a little bit of moisture to the vegetation in this very arid climate. But I’ve been realizing lately how much having lived in San Diego for nearly 20 years has distorted my idea of when it’s supposed to be green (our green season is in February, and usually by now it’s starting to turn brown for the summer). There was a lot of rain in California this winter and spring, so there was what’s called a “super bloom,” when the desert gets covered in blossoms from seeds that may have been dormant for years. We were sad about missing that. The last super bloom I remember was in 2005, before I had Emma and when both my parents were alive. My dad and I took my mom out to the eastern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park to look at the flowers. It was an amazing day, and she was so happy to see them.

In Mongolia, there’s hardly been any precipitation at all. Even so, I have a feeling it will turn green soon. I’m a little tired of the brown at this point. All the tourism photos you see show lush green grass and a brilliant blue sky. It looked like that when we arrived last August, though fall came on fairly quickly. Leaves were starting to turn by mid-September, and the first snowfall happened on September 19. I’ve been told it can still snow in May. On the whole, though, there was a lot less snow than I imagined there would be. And, because of the lack of snow out in the countryside, we’ve already experienced one major dust storm in the city. These seem to be growing more common, too, as the climate changes. With the expansion of the Gobi Desert, windstorms are becoming more common in the spring, bringing clouds of dust with them and driving the levels of airborne particulates up.

Sandstorm

The lack of snow has been a major cause of concern here for many reasons. Snow serves an important purpose out in the countryside. It protects the grass from overgrazing during the winter, by making it a bit harder for livestock to get at it. It also provides water for livestock, and melting snow waters the pasture in the spring. Sparse snowfall was nice from a city-dweller’s perspective, but for a country like Mongolia where livestock herding is one of the main livelihoods, it’s a disaster in the making.

Mongolia experiences several different types of livestock-related disasters. They are call dzud and are characterized by massive livestock deaths. There are several different kinds. What we are facing now is a dry or “black dzud,” with low precipitation resulting in deaths from lack of water and pasture. A white dzud, which Mongolia experienced last year, is caused by very heavy snow preventing the livestock from reaching the grass they need to survive. An iron dzud is when there is a brief thaw causing some snow melt, followed by a hard freeze, which covers the steppe with ice. The animals can’t break through it to the grass below, and they starve.

Typically, dzud happen only once a decade or so, but they have been happening with greater frequency during the last several years because of climate change. From what I have heard and read, the climate has been fluctuating considerably, and people are feeling the results of that everywhere in the country. I’ve posted already on the connection to the air pollution in the city. I’m still looking in the local news for what effect this dry winter is having on livestock and the people who depend on them. In the meanwhile, as anxious as I am for spring to arrive, I’m still worried about how the lack of snow will affect the increasingly precarious livelihoods of people in the countryside.

This is a necessary characteristic for us in the Anthropocene: knowledge of the interconnections between humans and nature. While we may prefer certain conditions (like a relatively warm, dry winter), we’re not living in isolation, and what we prefer may have a terrible impact on others. The problems Mongolia is facing seem almost insurmountable. It’s hard to see how livestock herding as a way of life is going to survive, and so far there is not much else for former herders to do except come to Ulaanbaatar and try to eek out a living here.

Which brings us back to springtime in Ulaanbaatar. As the population of the city continues to grow, so do the problems that the city faces. Right now, the air pollution caused by home heating is dying down, though levels remain high. But other issues become clear, caused by the inadequate urban infrastructure and services for the growing population. One small example: As the temperatures rise, the water flowing through the city, mostly in cement-lined ditches, starts to thaw. The trash that accumulated in the ice is freed, clogging the streams, and even blowing out onto the streets. The amount of trash seems to have increased exponentially in our neighborhood. And, as more people come outdoors in the warmer weather, they add plastic bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts to the growing piles.

So, while the springtime in my head is green grass and flowers, springtime in the city seems to be something else entirely. The rising temperatures bring with them more than just songbirds and budding trees. We will see how it continues to unfold.

Trash collecting in the creek

2 thoughts on “Earth Day reflections from Ulaanbaatar: The balance of humans and nature in Mongolia

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, the trash can be picked up, but most of it isn’t, from what I have seen. My daughter and I pick up trash when we go for our walks, and we get a lot of strange looks from people. There are a few NGOs that organize trash pick-ups, but despite the trash and recycling receptacles found around the city, people still dump a lot in the streets, and a lot of waste disposal areas aren’t secured, so trash blows around and ends up in the rivers. It’s something people need to work on.

      There are so many projects to help livestock herders manage the pasture better, but none of them seem to be designed to help them survive these dzud. The country really needs to work on other ways to earn income. There is mining, but it’s wrapped up under the control of certain large companies, and “artisanal mining” (individuals who mine out of desperation) is illegal. People who know English work in tourism, but not many people know English. It’s hard to see what Mongolia’s future will be like right now.

      Like

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