2010 was a rough year on the Mongolian steppe for the country’s herders. That year, an extremely cold winter struck, known locally as a dzud, wiping out 9 million animals, or 20 percent of the national herd in a country where livestock continues to be central to herders’ livelihoods and play a vital role in the national economy. The freezing temperatures of minus 50 Celsius were the worst in living memory, although the effects of climate change have been eating steadily into the lives of Mongolia’s herdsmen for several years. Along with the degradation of the steppe’s fragile grasslands through overgrazing, and the rapid societal change that comes with globalization, the millennia-old way of life on the steppes is under threat.1 This perfect storm has already prompted innovation among Mongolian herders, such as the practice known as comanagement in which herder groups and government agencies band together to husband the local resources.2 However, weather vagaries and calamities continue to challenge herders. The dzud of 2010 came as a surprise due to the lack of local weather forecasts. Many herders were forced to leave the land for good and join the growing pool of the economically displaced in Mongolia’s capital, Ulanbaatar. Others vowed to struggle on, motivated by the arrival of a new weather forecasting system that promises to bring a degree of security to life on the steppe, and with it a technological revolution.
In the devastating aftermath of the dzud of 2009–2010, the Mongolian government requested international donor agencies to provide US$18.15 million in the form of emergency and post-dzud recovery support. The government itself allocated more than $4 million during the winter months for immediate relief.3 As the herders struggled to rebuild their lives and count their losses, the thoughts of many communities turned to longer-term solutions.
Herders for long have expressed the need for more localized weather information. But until 2010, Mongolia did not have a localized weather forecasting system. NAMEM, Mongolia’s National Agency for Meteorology and Environmental Monitoring, provides forecasts up to the sum (district) level through TV and radio channels, but does not have the capacity to provide community-level forecasts, which are most relevant to herders. There is wide variability of community-level conditions due to the mountainous terrain in many regions, with marked temperature, rain, snowfall, and wind-speed differences.
Researchers and meteorologists working in Mongolia had been thinking for some time about how to respond to the herders’ demand, but had not been able to come up with a concrete proposal. That changed when an opportunity arose for Hijaba Ykhanbai and me to team up with Wang Xiaoli, a researcher from China then working for the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System for Africa and Asia (RIMES) based in Bangkok, Thailand. RIMES is an organization affiliated with the United Nations that has a capacity to provide localized weather forecasts. In 2010 the three of us put together a team of researchers, meteorologists, and herders led by a local nongovernmental organization known as JASIL. The group decided to provide daily email or SMS blasts providing location-specific weather forecasts for a number of pilot sites.4
In October 2010 the team initiated the process of introducing their plan to three different communities representing different ecological niches. Community members from Ikhbulag, a steppe- and forest-region, were the first to identify locally adapted weather forecast needs, which included a three-day forecast. Herders use this 72-hour time span to plan and adjust their daily activities such as choice of pastures, hours of grazing, and time of milking. The key question then was how to send and distribute the information. Mobile phone density in Mongolia has surpassed one hundred percent: in Ulaanbaatar, many people own more than one mobile phone, loading each one with a different simcard according to particular rates offered by the major communication companies. In the rural areas, however, connectivity remains a problem, in particular in the more remote mountainous areas. In times of bad weather, communication interruptions are frequent.
One herder from Ikhbulag remarked after the 2009–2010 dzud, “During the last dzud, we could not contact the sum [district] governor or anyone else and ask for help. Our mobile signal is very limited. In some areas, only on the highest mountain top is there a signal, but in winter we are not able to climb up.” After careful consideration of Internet information and communication technology (ICT) possibilities, the annual calendar of herder movements, and local geographic conditions, the team designed the first locally adapted data transmission setup. For each of the three pilot sites, a particular setup was designed and tested. The team studied an earlier example of an ICT-system from the Gobi region and made good use of its lessons learned.5 Notably, the team adopted the use of a single, fixed phone to serve as a community-level transmission station. A single herder with access to the phone distributes the information around the community by phone, where possible, or using the traditional method of going on horseback. The herder also measures and records local weather variables in a community weather logbook. This recording serves to verify the weather forecasts produced by RIMES, while also beginning to establish a historical record of community-level weather data.
In all three sites, herders are making good use of the weather forecasts, both at household and group levels. The most striking feature is that they have been able to improve their decision making for key livelihood activities throughout the year given seasonal variability. Herders have made multiple uses of the forecasts.6 Solongo, a herder from Lun sum, gives a few examples: “We use the forecasts for the timing of pasture rotation, planting and harvesting of crops, making hay and fodder, and our seasonal movements.”
But not only is the weather the news of the day. Herders have increased the use of the communication system to exchange information more frequently with others, to more efficiently organize children going to school, coordinate travel to the sum center and other places, and obtain information about the prices of goods in the sum center or even as far away as the capital. For example, herders were able to remain informed about the price changes of horse milk, a product with a very high demand in certain months of the year. Selling horse milk is for many families a key source of income.
Herders in the pilot sites reported a significant reduction of animal losses, with many reporting zero losses, in the past winter and spring months. This could be partly explained by the milder weather conditions as compared to the 2009–2010 winter, as well as a generally improved level of preparedness, which has been observed in many regions of the country.7 But herders in all three sites also attribute the much improved survival rates to the use of the localized weather forecasts.8 Herders in the pilot sites have followed the example of herders elsewhere in the country by preparing Climate Risk Management Plans using NAMEM’s seasonal forecasts plus localized weather forecasts.
The results have laid the foundation for a national Mongolian system that can greatly improve the livelihoods of herders through more precise ex ante decision making and planning, and also generate huge savings in terms of avoiding or reducing ex post disaster time, efforts, and expenses. From a technological perspective, the new delivery systems do not require much maintenance, other than care and regular maintenance of the ICTs and weather measurement equipment. Of course, keeping the systems up and running also requires the timely payment of Internet and telephone bills by all actors involved. Organizationally, herders seem very capable of continuing the new systems. In fact, they have already begun, on their own, to expand the weather forecasting system to neighboring herders. They have also, as an unintended consequence, intensified the use of mobile and fixed phones, which must be good news for the telecommunication companies that are providing the services.
According to Mongolian ICT specialists, it is foreseen that within five to 10 years from now many herders will be able to purchase improved mobile phones with the capacity to connect to the Internet. Considering this future scenario, the core of the service delivery system could become Internet based. Then, there will be no more need to climb to the highest mountaintop for a phone call to the local governor to find out if another climate change disaster is about to strike.
The initiative described here was supported by a national program called Development Research to Empower All Mongolians through Information Communication Technology (DREAM IT). DREAM IT received funding and technical support from the International Development Research Centre of Canada.