In Mongolia, Climate Change and Mining Boom Threaten National Identity
Nearly 40 percent of Mongolians are herders whose livelihoods are irrevocably intertwined with their environment. Herding has been an economic and cultural mainstay of rural life since the days of Genghis Khan. Children as young as five race horses for miles across open grassland in the Naadam, Mongolia’s annual national festival. The winning jockeys are celebrated and the winning horses idolized. Mongolia’s reverence for its nomadic roots extends all the way to its 20-year-old constitution, which enshrines livestock as “national wealth” to be protected by the state. But today, the livelihoods of families reliant on grazing livestock are under threat from a climate that is becoming increasingly harsh and unpredictable. Mongolia is feeling the effects of climate change “perhaps more rapidly than any other place in the world,” proclaimed the vice chairman of parliament this year. Desertification is driving the Gobi Desert to expand by 10,000 square kilometers every year – enough to fit the state of Delaware two times over. Compounded by increasingly harsh winter storms, the changing climate is driving herders to relocate to Ulan Bator and other cities in search of better opportunities. That migration is adding to sprawling slums, cook stove-driven air pollution, and a public health crisis that the president himself has called a “disaster.” These changes are set to have a uniquely powerful impact on a national identity that is interwoven with the herding tradition.