A tenuous ecological balance is fracturing as Mongolia’s peatlands succumb to climate change, over-grazing, and industrial activity.

Arkhangai Province, Mongolia -- For millennia the wetlands of the Orkhon Valley have nourished the livestock and livelihoods of herders like Chimedregzen Nadmid, who has lived there all his life.

He remembers when the land was so boggy that riding a horse was impossible. The soil absorbed water like a sponge, forming a vast plain of peatlands that sprouted thick grass and fed lakes and rivers. It was harsh terrain but ideal pastureland.

Then a couple of decades ago it changed. Marshy wetlands shrank and grass vanished. The corrugated landscape flattened and dried out. “The first thing I noticed was the falling water level,” says Chimed, as he is known. “I knew I had to do something.”

A fractured ecological balance

Peatlands form when dead plant matter partially decomposes in marshy areas, capturing carbon taken from the air by the plants when alive. The moist, rich soil is a magnet for herders as much of the country’s land is exhausted from over-grazing or desertification. As a result, peatlands are suffering the same fate. They’re also being damaged by mining, road construction, and human-caused steppe fires. Climate change is making matters worse.

“The first thing I noticed was the falling water level. I knew I had to do something.” 

Chimedregzen Nadmid

A tenuous ecological balance is fracturing. Peatlands are Mongolia’s last fertile pastures. Undisturbed, they absorb water from melting snow and rain which they filter and release into rivers and lakes. They prevent soil erosion and maintain groundwater levels that sustain crops and forests while staving off desertification.

But the area covered by peat in Mongolia has almost halved in the past 50 years. This has had a dramatic impact on permafrost—huge lenses of frozen ground left by ancient glaciations. When peat degrades, permafrost loses a protective layer insulating it from the elements and begins to thaw. Mongolia now has around a third less permafrost than it did just under 50 years ago.

The economic implications are alarming. Permafrost layers are a significant store of freshwater in Mongolia. Agriculture, which contributes more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product and employs nearly one-third of workers, depends on plentiful water and feedstock.

Animal husbandry, the core business of most herders, accounts for the vast majority of agricultural production. Livestock numbers in Mongolia have doubled to more than 60 million since the 1990s. This, coupled with several droughts, has caused significant land degradation, forcing livestock to move to peatlands in search of productive pastures.

“The problem is that the number of cattle on peatlands is 20 or 30 times higher than other areas,” said Dr. Tatiana Minayeva, a peatlands expert at Wetlands International, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands. “It is estimated that 80% of Mongolia’s cattle are concentrated on natural and degraded peatlands, which cover only 2% of the country’s land area.”

Depleting carbon sink

Peatland degradation has long-term climate implications for Mongolia, and for the global climate. As they degrade and permafrost thaws, ancient organic carbon is released. Peatlands cover just 3% of the planet’s land area but hold 30% of all soil carbon, so when they degrade disproportionately high emissions are produced.

Mongolia’s high elevation and cold, dry weather leave it acutely vulnerable to a warming climate. Already, air temperature has risen by an average of more than 2°C since 1940, according to the government’s Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment. There are fewer extremely cold days during winter and summer brings once unthinkable heatwaves. Many small lakes have dried up, and ice cover on rivers has thinned by 35 centimeters.

Temperatures will climb even higher, according to climate models, depending on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. In a high-emission scenario, temperatures in Mongolia could soar by as much as 6°C between 2016 and 2035. This would worsen peatland degradation, releasing even more carbon and speeding up climate change.

Reducing climate change impacts

“It would be a huge domino effect,” says Nyambayar Batbayar, Director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia. “The hydrology is very fragile. When the ecosystem chain snaps it will be very difficult to reverse.”

“The hydrology is very fragile. When the ecosystem chain snaps it will be very difficult to reverse.” 

Nyambayar Batbayar

How Mongolia approaches this challenge will be instructive for other countries with peatlands as they try to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Mongolia is the world’s 7th-biggest global emitter of CO2 from degrading peatlands, according to 2008 data compiled by Wetlands International. More than a dozen countries have larger peat areas than Mongolia. Global emissions from degraded peatlands are increasing, the organization says, especially in developing countries.

“Restoring degraded peatlands and ensuring current peatlands are relatively undisturbed would not only support the livelihoods of herders, it would reduce the extreme impacts of climate change,” says Alvin Lopez, a senior natural resources and agriculture specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). “That’s why it’s so important to factor peatlands conservation into national development planning.”

Building dams, forging policies

Chimed’s initial conservation efforts at peatlands near his home an hour’s drive from Kharkhorin, the country’s 13th century capital, were motivated by a need to save water. They brought mixed results.

Wooden fences he built around springs collapsed when the water froze. A couple of years ago Chimed, 55, enlisted local herder families to help build a small dam to water their livestock. It worked for a time, until animals trampled the earthen banks into the mud.

But his labors gained attention. In 2015, ADB joined with Wetlands International to build steel fences around springs feeding the peatlands that had been almost completely destroyed by overgrazing and trampling by cattle.

Permafrost and hydrology experts discovered that significant ground water storage from permafrost thaw was discharging as springs at the surface. The presence of a water source spurred efforts to restore peatlands near Chimed’s home. As fences blocked entry to the springs for herders and livestock, a small dam was built to give them access to water.

The 5-hectare restoration site now includes three fenced-in springs and is viewed as a potential model for other parts of the country. Water quality and quantity at the restoration site has increased and grass is growing back. “The area is reverting to its natural state,” says Dr. Tsogt Zandraabal of the Institute of General and Experimental Biology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar.

Research to enable action

The site has also helped to raise awareness of the issue among policy makers and herders.

The scale of the challenge became clear for Gerelt-Od Badarch in 2016 after a seminar in Arkhangai Province on peatland degradation hosted by ADB and the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR). He sells his sheep cheaply as they are thinner than before, and the cost of fodder has nearly doubled.

“We will continue our effort to protect and conserve these vital areas in cooperation with our partners.” 

Ariuntuya Dorjsuren

“There’s no grass on the peatlands and no water,” says Badarch. “It’s having a direct financial impact on herders. But now at least we have a basic understanding of what’s happening.”

The seminar in Khashaat soum (a sub-provincial administrative district) where Badarch is governor, was part of a technical assistance grant funded by JFPR at the Government of Mongolia’s request. The assistance has improved understanding of the important role played by peatlands and how to integrate their restoration and management into national policies across economic sectors.

“This assistance from JFPR and ADB has provided invaluable information about peatland ecosystems and their importance to Mongolia,” says Ariuntuya Dorjsuren, Director General, Department of Climate Change and International Cooperation at Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism. “We will continue our effort to protect and conserve these vital areas in cooperation with our partners."

A key objective is to address a data deficit. A comprehensive assessment report produced under the technical assistance outlines ways to conserve peatlands. A policy brief focuses on priorities at local, national, and international levels and examines ways of raising awareness and building capacity.

A draft strategic action plan identifies more than 80 initiatives to meet immediate needs at 10 priority peatland areas. In the Orkhon Valley these include a detailed study of the hydrology examining threats such as water contamination and blockage, as well as protection of peatlands that are still intact.

A race against time

The fight to save Mongolia’s peatlands will be fought on the ground as well as at policy symposiums and legislatures. The result will shape the future of its herding communities, which for much of the world are the country’s defining if stereotypical image.

“The big job now is to convince local people to conserve the peatlands,” explains Nyambayar of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre. “If we don’t do anything the grassland might degrade even faster than now. It will have a huge impact on herders.”

Chimed believes that herders in his area now appreciate the need for urgent action, having seen how fast the landscape is deteriorating. That makes him optimistic that at least some of the damage can be mitigated and perhaps reversed.

“Many people around here support me now and I’ve got lots of ideas. My dream is to protect the whole area.”

John Larkin is a Senior External Relations Specialist in ADB’s Department of Communications. Gantuya Ganzorig is an External Relations Officer at ADB’s Mongolia Resident Mission. Learn more about ADB’s work in Mongolia.