Mongolian people have always felt a strong connection to nature — the lifestyle of nomadic Mongolians to this day depends entirely on natural resources and changing seasons. Mongolians were the first people in the world to formally declare their commitment to protecting nature and resources — the world’s first national park was declared there in 1778.
But the windswept landscapes and natural resources Mongolians depend on have come under threat in recent years, jeopardizing a way of life nearly as old as the prairies themselves.
Mongolia has faced few threats to its natural beauty and resources over the course of its long history — mostly because so few people live there. Our population here in Hong Kong is 2.5 times greater than all of Mongolia’s — even though we could fit 1,416 Hong Kongs into a country that size.
Although deforestation, overgrazing and overhunting are putting pressures on the health of the Mongolian steppe, it is global demand — rather than local — that is responsible for the most dramatic fracturing of the Mongolian landscape we see today. Expanding mining and oil drilling, along with the roads and railroads required to support those industries, are helping boost and modernize Mongolia’s economy. But if not planned out properly, this kind of development can ruin Mongolia’s landscape — destroying habitat for Bactrian camels, Gobi bears, Siberian ibex, and Saiga antelope, as well as the traditional lifestyle of many Mongolians, 40% of whom are nomadic.
A Tradition at Risk
There’s little time to lose in Mongolia: despite the mounting threats, the country still harbors one of last few opportunities on Earth to protect grasslands at a scale big enough to support entire species and the traditional way of life of a million people. But in the meantime, natural resources like fresh water are in more jeopardy every day: the Mongolian government has issued thousands of licenses to mining projects, which — if not guided sustainably — have the potential to disrupt drainage patterns, deplete water supplies and create pollution problems that can persist for centuries.
Those developmental dangers are compounded by other threats. Climate change has dried up hundreds of lakes, springs and rivers; inadequate access to wastewater treatment means nomadic communities are often stuck with polluted water sources; and a covert industry of “ninja” or “artisanal” miners — numbering, by some estimates, nearly 100,000 — is spoiling streams and alluvial flats throughout the country.
Most worrying is the fact that freshwater scarcity could change the way Mongolians lead their lives. “Nomads flock to the lakes and rivers that can sustain them and their herds,” says Gala Davaa, the Conservancy’s director of conservation in Mongolia. “This concentrated grazing activity strips grasslands bare, jeopardizing the very ecosystems that make the nomadic lifestyle possible in the first place.”
Water for the People
When you think of Mongolia, you probably think of arid grasslands stretching as far as the eye can see. And you’re right: 75% of Mongolia is made of the dry habitats of the Gobi Desert and the steppes. Yet the country also boasts a number of freshwater assets, like Lake Hovsgol — Asia’s second-biggest lake by volume — and the Amur, the longest free-flowing river in the Eastern Hemisphere. Still, freshwater resources in Mongolia are limited, and come under greater threat every day.
Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. New conservation planning being performed by the Conservancy could help Mongolian decision-makers preserve natural patterns of water levels and flows, and new water funds could create sustainable financing for projects that preserve fresh water. Join us all in the world’s most ambitious effort yet to save the lands and waters we all depend on. Become a monthly Conservation Champion today.
Development by Design
Roughly 16% of Mongolia’s 1.5 million square kilometers have been leased to mining and oil development interests for exploration, and another 26% of that land is available for lease. This could lead to a level of resource extraction that leaves the landscape fragmented and severs vital passageways for animal migration. Development could also monopolize freshwater sources on which people and wildlife alike depend.
In 2012, in order to balance economic growth needs with the country’s interest in sustainably developing in a way that preserves landscapes, lifestyles, and natural resources, the Mongolian government incorporated the Conservancy’s Development by Design strategy into the country’s national laws: mining and oil development projects must now evaluate, and then mitigate or offset, their environmental impacts.
Moving forwards with Development by Design, the Conservancy is making use of this limited window to help Mongolia make sustainable decisions about where and how to develop its oil and mining resources in a way that boosts the economy, but also ensures the survival of plants, wildlife, and the nomadic way of life for 40% of the country’s population.
Seizing the Moment
You, together with the Conservancy, have a limited window to help direct Mongolia’s frontier spirit towards sustainability.
By joining forces with The Nature Conservancy’s efforts in Mongolia, you can support:
- Collaboration with the Mongolian government to preserve natural resources like fresh water, manage protected areas and slow environmental degradation.
- Conducting workshops to identify the latest conservation technology and methodology to Mongolian scientists.
- Assisting in designing an effective protected area network for Mongolia.
- The preservation of connections between intact landscapes, so that species such as the Mongolian gazelle can continue their seasonal migrations.
Join us today as a Conservation Champion by making a monthly gift.