February 16, 2018
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There are too many animals for the available water supply in the Gobi desert region. The situation worsens each year.
DALANZADGAD — The scorching sun glares at them from directly above, and everything under their feet is parched, dusty and barren. The sheep and goats squeal and squeak, their nostrils sunken, their eyes glazed. Batbaatar Tsedevsuren, a herder with more than two decades of experience, knows this is how his animals behave when extremely thirsty.
He has walked with his 700 animals for several days in Mongolia’s Gobi desert in search of water and green pastures, when suddenly Batbaatar sees a well, and a fellow herder sitting on its edge. He comes closer with a smile, he later recalls, but the herder doesn’t reciprocate. “There is no water in the well,” the other herder quickly says. Batbaatar knows that isn’t true, and that the herder is just acting stingy. But he can’t afford a fight.
Located in the south of the country, the Gobi desert region has become a site of conflict among herders fighting over access to water. Because of natural and human-made causes — including climate change and mining — water bodies in Umnugovi, Mongolia’s largest province in the desert, are shrinking at an alarming pace. It’s forcing residents to consider whether their traditional nomadic herding lifestyle can survive this shock.
The number of water bodies that dried up in the province increased tenfold in the decade from 2007 to 2018, according to census data from the National Statistics Office of Mongolia. This drying-up brings with it an increase in the frequency of droughts and a shrinking of the region’s pastureland. With low rainfall or no rains at all, some places in the region have become nearly uninhabitable. Gantumur Sugir, a herder in the region’s Gurvantes soum, is one who has decided to move out. Because of a shortage of pastures, and no rains in the soum for three years now, he says it’s impossible for any living being to remain.
Almost everyone in the area has a story to tell of a river they grew up with disappearing or on its way to disappearing. Streaming along the south of this province’s Bayandalai soum is Dalai Bulag — a spring in danger of drying up as its flow decreases each year. “When I was a child, Dalai Bulag was too wide to jump across,” says Ganbold Sumiya, who grew up drinking its water. “Now, the width of the river is so narrow that you can cross it in one step.”
Pastures are scarce, water is drying up.
In Gobi — famous for the largest dinosaur fossil reservoir in the world and home to black-tailed gazelles and wild asses — climate change is manifesting itself in ways big and small. According to the “Atlas of Desertification in Mongolia, 2020,” published by the National Agency of Meteorology and Environment, the amount of precipitation during summers has decreased. In fact, the report says there are times when the region doesn’t get any rain at all for years. The number of days with winds and storms has increased, as has the aridity. And the land area affected by desertification has increased significantly.
“It is becoming difficult to herd animals as the rivers keep drying up,” says Bat-Erdene Shinekhuu, head of the province’s Food and Agriculture Department. “Pastures are scarce, water is drying up … The herders have to keep working harder to prevent their animals from dying.”
If this continues, herder Gantumur — who has moved more than 300 kilometers (185 miles) in search of pastures — says “our nomadic heritage of animal husbandry, which is rare in the world, will disappear.”
Traditionally, Mongolia has a nomadic pastoralist culture. Raising livestock is the main driver of its economy, employing 1 in 4 Mongolians, according to an International Monetary Fund report. Since livestock is the main source of livelihood for herders, they have tried to raise more animals to increase their income. Before 1990, when Mongolia transitioned to a free market economy, livestock was managed and tightly controlled by the state. Since privatizing, the number of animals in Mongolia has tripled to 70 million, according to the IMF, and the number has been increasing year by year with no regulatory body to keep it in check.
With nearly 98% of Umnugovi province now moderately or severely affected by desertification and land degradation, livestock herders can’t afford to be sedentary. In normal times, when the rains are adequate, herders move between two and four times a year. Recently, however, the herders have had to move more often because of the scarcity of water. Although there are 5,184 pasture wells, the number of cattle per well is two to three times higher than the standard. A well that once watered 500 animals “is now watering only 200 camels,” says Bat-Erdene, head of the province’s Food and Agriculture Department.
Families try to guard or fight for their share of water as they seek to hold on to this generations-old profession. Meanwhile, the reality of climate change looms over the region — way more than it does in most parts of the world. Mongolia is one of the 10 countries most affected by global warming and climate change due to its geographic location and extreme continental climate, according to an Asian Development Bank report. Over the last 80 years, the average temperature in Mongolia has warmed by 2.25 degrees, making it almost three times higher than the global average. Even a one-degree rise is a substantial change, says Batbold Dorjgurkhem, Mongolia director for the World Wide Fund for Nature, an international environmental organization. The situation in Mongolia, and specifically in the Gobi region, thus becomes “very destructive,” he says.
Bolortuya Bekh-Ochir, Batbaatar Tsedevsuren, with their daughter Tuvshinkhishig Batbaatar, and Battumur Ayaakhuu rest in the shade while Battumur’s herd drinks water.
Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu, GPJ Mongolia
Herders also must deal with another party in this water tug-of-war: the mining industry. Currently, 14 companies are engaged in mineral extraction in the region and there are three major mining projects operating here. The extraction of coal and fluorspar, an important raw material for the industry that is used in the smelting of iron, consumes a lot of water, says Myagmar Shar, head of the Water Agency, a government implementing body. “Remember that here, water in itself is a kind of mineral.”
The mining companies say that there is no denying that mining consumes a lot of water, but they blame government policies for the water shortage.
We are unable to start any big projects.
“If the government makes the right policies and the water users act honestly, there would be no need to use groundwater and deplete the resources,” says Bat-Amgalan Barbaatar, an environmental specialist for the Tavantolgoi mine.
But the Water Agency’s Myagmar dismisses the accusation, saying it is unacceptable to solely blame government policies. He says on several projects, the government is stuck due to the lack of funding. “Our country is burdened with debt and has reached its maximum borrowing limit … so we are unable to start any big projects,” Myagmar says.
In May, Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai held a meeting in the province and acknowledged that “herders are in an extremely difficult situation.” He introduced the Blue Horse project, which aims to increase the accessibility of water in Gobi by building water pipelines to the region and establishing multipurpose reservoirs on major rivers, such as the Orkhon, Tuul and Kherlen, to collect rain and floodwater. The local government is working to increase the region’s pasture irrigation supply — which was at 58% in 2021 — to 70% by 2025.
But with uncertainty driving the everyday lives of these herders, fights over water have become frequent. Batbaatar has already been threatened several times, once with a warning that, if he came closer to a well again, he would be greeted with a rifle.
“In the past, local herders used to come and greet those who are on the move with tea,” he says. “Nowadays, when you see a person approaching, you are afraid that the person is coming to chase you away from their wells and pastures.”
*Uranchimeg Tsogkhuu is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia.
There are too many animals for the available water supply in the Gobi desert region. The situation worsens each year.
As the right-wing coalition tops Italian elections, far-right leader of the Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, is set to become Italy's next prime minister. Both her autobiography and the just concluded campaign help fill in the holes in someone whose roots are in Italy's post-fascist political parties.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.