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Case Study: Food security in the face of climate risks - Mongolian herders’ experiences

Case Study: Food security in the face of climate risks - Mongolian herders’ experiences
Bayarmaa Baljinnyam's youngest daughter with the family's goat herd, Mongolia

Mongolia, with 2.87 million people living on 1.5 million hectares, is the world’s most sparsely populated country. With 15 animals for every person, 70 percent of the adult population work in animal husbandry.

Mongolia, with 2.87 million people living on 1.5 million hectares, is the world’s most sparsely populated country. With 15 animals for every person, 70 percent of the adult population work in animal husbandry.

But extreme weather, in both summer and winter, present high risks to nutrition and food security. Across Mongolia, average temperatures have increased by about 1.6°C during the past 60 years. Herder households often have a poor diversity in their diets, meaning micronutrient deficiencies are common.

Through droughts, climate change is already affecting water availability and range lands. But an even bigger hazard comes from winter disasters, called dzuds, in which extended and extreme cold, combined with repeated snowfalls, kills many livestock.

Due to low livelihood diversification, Large portions of the population can become destitute and food insecure from one season to the next if livestock is lost.

Jinst, an administrative area (soum) covering 531,264 hectares of mostly range lands, has more than 2,000 inhabitants, but about 40 percent of the population is under 18.

Bayarmaa Baljinnyam’s family belongs to the Orgil herder group, which includes 14 families who share the same pasture and grazing area. Her livelihood, and the family’s food supply, depends entirely on her herd of sheep and goats. What the family doesn’t consume is normally sold.

Poor families in Jinst were particularly affected by a series of severe droughts and dzud disasters, which ran from 1999 to 2002, losing more animals and having less access to resources like animal feed. Local Jinst soum statistics report the total number of livestock dropped from 125,185 in 2000 to 24,104 in 2002.

For almost two years many households did not have enough milk and meat to consume, as they were trying to rebuild their remaining flocks. Nutrient deficiencies became common, while access to essential items like candles, home-heating fuels, clothing, and education was also restricted.

Families with larger herds and herders with greater livestock management experience were less affected by the 1999 to 2002 dzud, largely due to better skills and preparation for the coming winter.

Bayarmaa Baljinnyam's family play shagai, a traditional game using bones.

Bayarmaa Baljinnyam's family play shagai, a traditional game using bones.

The households in Jinst agreed to jointly address their common issues of food security, nutrition and climate change by organising for collective action. Between 2003 and 2008 the herders in Bayarmaa’s neighbourhood were part of a UNDP supported Sustainable Grassland Management Project, implemented by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Herders rehabilitated winter shelters for livestock and learned how to store hay and hand fodder in preparation for any future dzud. They formed a community-based organisation to improve their livelihoods and regulate access and use of pasture land.

As a formal organisation, the group gained frequent interactions with local government and external organisations such as donors and nongovernmental organisations. These interactions have helped herders mobilise small grants and technical assistance for well rehabilitation, development of common reserve pastures and alternative income generation activities.

In 2009-2010, Jinst herders experienced another devastating dzud, but its affects were less severe. Reserving pasture, warming up livestock shelters and collecting hand fodder were among the new practices that helped them minimise the damage.

Community organisation has allowed herders to improve how they manage both climate and market risks. The small-scale gardens families have established for household consumption have enabled them to diversify their diet.

Community organisation has helped access training in value-added skills such as wool processing, felt making and maximising production of dairy products for outside markets.

The process of group formation has been empowering for the herders and has strengthened their customary structures of cooperation. By being part of organised groups, herders can cooperate and network with local officials and trainers more often than before and their group leaders and activists can communicate their concerns and interests across multiple scales and networks.

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