Sandstorm: When the countryside blows into town

The other day, as I was writing, the light in the room suddenly became dim and murky. I looked out the window to see the Bogd Khan mountain disappearing behind a cloud of dust. It was gradual at first, looking just like a thick haze, but then the air took on the sepia tones of a dust storm. Even the apartment blocks that we usually see to the west eventually vanished. It was like the winter pollution on a really bad day, only the murk was brownish-orange. Another sandstorm was passing through, our second big one of the season.

The good thing about these sandstorms is that they are very short-lived. This one was clearing up within a few hours, and by late afternoon the sky was blue-ish again, with dramatic gray clouds. There are usually a few sandstorms in the spring, preceded by strong winds that kick up the surface layer of sand or dust and combine it with the dust of unpaved roads and vacant lots once it gets into the city. They remind me of the sandstorms I’ve experienced in other desert regions, including Palm Desert in California and of course Cairo in Egypt.

After the sandstorm

In Cairo, the Khamaseen sand storms are legendary, and rightly so. They are massive, and can cover much of the country, blowing in across North Africa at speeds of up to 50 or 60 miles per hour, leaving a thick coating of reddish dust behind them. They also happen in April, so I got to experience it twice when I lived in Egypt in the mid-1990s. The second year I was more prepared, but I still made the mistake of hanging my laundry out on the back balcony right before the winds hit. My sheets and towels were covered in damp, brick-red schmutz before I could get them inside, and I had to wash them all over again. (In that apartment, I hand washed my laundry in the bathtub, so it was annoying to have to get that stuff out of my sheets, especially.)

But back to Mongolia. When I was talking to an older taxi driver the other day (he was probably in his 60s), he told me that these sandstorms didn’t really happen very often when he was growing up in Ulaanbaatar. They are new, he kept saying. They used to happen every so often, but now they happen several times each year. Of course, this was his impression, but I had heard similar things from other life-long residents of the city. The spring sandstorms are typical in southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert region, but seemed less common in Ulaanbaatar before this decade. So, after I talked to the taxi driver, I started doing some reading up on the sandstorms in Mongolia.

Unfortunately, for some reason, my contact with the UCSD VPN hasn’t been accessible for the last couple of months; I’m not sure why. I’ve troubleshooted it with the help of the IT support people at UCSD, and they couldn’t help me, but they thought it had something to do with a change in my Internet connection. I’m making do with whatever I can access for free now (and it’s still fairly extensive, except for some articles behind academic paywalls, which would be really useful to have).

From what I’m able to find, it does seem that sand storms in Ulaanbaatar and other areas of Mongolia have been increasing in severity and frequency, and most of the articles I’ve found link that to a number of factors, including desertification—the expansion of the Gobi especially—and climate change. They cause many health effects among the city residents, such as eye problems, asthma, and other respiratory ailments. Out in the countryside, these storms cause livestock deaths as well, which have an impact on herders’ economic well-being and health. The storms are part of a larger complex of “Asian Dust Storms” which arise because of the increase in winds caused by the breakdown of the Siberian High Pressure zone to the northwest. Locally, they are exacerbated by the increase in upaved roads, land clearance, and construction sites, as well as the large coal and slag dumps near the two coal-fired power plants on the west side of the city. (If you want to read more, check out this article on the sources of air particulate pollution in Ulaanbaatar.)

Several factors are causing the expansion of the desert in Mongolia, but one of the big ones is the growing popularity of cashmere wool. Much of the world’s cashmere comes from Mongolia, where cashmere goats make up an increasing share of the country’s livestock (growing from around 19% to 60% over the last 30 years, according to this NPR article). Goats are a problem for grasslands, though, because unlike other livestock, they tear up the roots of the grasses with their hooves and their teeth. This effectively destroys the pastures. And, I just happened to notice the other day that the US Congress introduced a bill to allow the sale of duty-free Mongolian cashmere, which will increase cashmere sales in the USA, which will likely increase demand for cashmere as it becomes cheaper in the USA. Overgrazing needs to be counteracted with better pasture management, or the livelihoods of Mongolian herders will collapse. There are also projects encouraging shifts to other livestock, such as yaks and camels, whose hair also has value but which are much less damaging to the grasslands.

A herd of sheep and goats coming in from grazing in the Elsen Tasarkhai (Little Gobi Desert)

Climate change is another factor, of course. Mongolia is warming faster than the global average, and this is having a major effect on ecosystems here. Ten years ago, the impact of climate change on Mongolia was already well-known (see this 2009 blog post from the World Bank). And it has not improved. As Mongolia continues to warm, the weather fluctuations will increase, as will the trend to a drier climate. All of this will continue to affect not only the rural population of Mongolia, but the growing population of Ulaanbaatar, which is now home to almost half the people in the country.

There are quite a few projects addressing pasture and livestock management, with organizations ranging from the Mongolian government, the World Bank, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, to local pasture users’ groups, all working on improving management practices. And there has been some recent good news from researchers at Colorado State University, working with local collaborators, showing that more of the damage to pasture is reversible than people had thought. Their research showed that a tipping point to irreversible damage may be further off than anticipated.

One of the pressures, though, on increasing livestock production has been the transition to capitalism that has been underway since the end of the communist system in 1990. Livestock production has changed dramatically as it is driven by the need to make money (as opposed to, say, the Soviet Union’s insatiable appetite for meat). The number of livestock in Mongolia has swelled to around 70 million at the last count, but the number of people involved in herding is shrinking.

In a now-familiar pattern, the people involved in livestock herding are changing, from the nomadic herders of the steppe that are probably the most common stereotypical image of Mongolians (even among Mongolians) to “absentee” owners who have huge herds of animals that are managed by other people. This socio-economic shift is supported, for the moment, by the climate shift, because large-scale owners can afford to weather climate disasters like the dzud in a way small-scale herders can’t. If a family that owns a small herd experiences a die-off, they completely lose their source of income and food, and, often, their collateral for the loans they have taken out for their children’s education. This leaves more room for the large-scale herders to expand, because they are not as badly affected by the death of a few thousand livestock.

So once again it’s easy to see the connections between city and countryside here in Ulaanbaatar, in this case quite literally. It’s not just people who are moving into the city as desertification and climate change make rural livelihoods become more precarious. That dust blowing into town is also caused by the transformations going on in the region. This is what I think of as I look at the reddish-orange curtain that has fallen between me and the mountains on the other side of the Tuul River valley.

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