BARUUN-URT, Mongolia: Strong winds and heavy dust storms are frequent occurrences in Mongolia as the Asian country is facing worsening desertification and land degradation, with a steady decline in vegetation cover year by year.
Mongolia has a total land area of 1,564,116 square kilometres, but only around 8% is covered by forests.
Around 77% of Mongolia's total territory has been affected by desertification and land degradation, according to official data from the country's Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
It is said that climate change and human activities are the two main causes of desertification in Mongolia.
AFFECTED BY CLIMATE CHANGE
In April, most parts of the country were hit by strong winds and dust storms almost every day, according to Mongolia's weather monitoring agency.
Climate change-related desertification has been the main factor behind the increasing frequency of yellow dust storms in Mongolia in recent years, according to the country's environment ministry.
The increasing frequency of yellow dust storms is a sign that Mongolia's soil is deteriorating significantly, it added.
The average temperature in Mongolia has risen 2.25 degrees Celsius over the past 80 years, almost tripling the rise of average global temperatures, and the annual precipitation has decreased by 7% to 8% over the last 80 years, especially the amount of rainfall or precipitation during the warm season has decreased significantly, Altangerel Enkhbat, head of the public administration and management department at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, told Xinhua.
"These figures show the impact of climate change on Mongolia. The frequency of natural disasters caused by climate change has increased significantly in the country in recent years," he said, adding that a tangible example of this is yellow dust storms.
Tackling such environmental issues as desertification is not the sole responsibility of a certain country, but necessitates joint actions of all countries in the region, Minister of Environment and Tourism Bat-Ulzii Bat-Erdene said.
"Yellow dust storms originating from Mongolia reach other countries such as China, South Korea and Japan," he said, stressing that the situation entails collaboration among relevant countries to jointly fight yellow dust storms.
WORSENED BY HUMAN ACTIVITIES
Human activities such as overgrazing, irresponsible mining and unpaved rural roads are also aggravating desertification and land degradation in Mongolia.
Mongolia is one of the world's last surviving nomadic countries. According to its National Statistics Office, Mongolia logged 71.1 million head of livestock at the end of 2022, a record high since the nomadic country began a livestock animal census in 1918.
The promotion of livestock husbandry is seen as the most viable solution to diversify the landlocked country's mining-dependent economy.
However, overgrazing has become one of the main factors that intensify desertification and land degradation in Mongolia as it would reduce grass that holds the soil in place.
Mongolian herders have been paying great attention to increasing the number of their livestock rather than improving the quality. This is partly because the country gives awards and certificates to families who have at least a thousand head of livestock every year.
For example, a total of 191 herder families in the eastern Sukhbaatar province were given this honor at the end of 2022, increasing the number of herder households with more than 1,000 head of livestock in the province to 1,110.
"In recent years, the vegetation cover has been deteriorating, and we have not seen a good summer. We always move to other regions which have rich grass, to fatten our livestock," Borchuluun Gansukh, a herder with over a thousand head of livestock in Ongon soum of Sukhbaatar province, told Xinhua.
Besides overgrazing, irresponsible mining operations are another factor that intensifies desertification in Mongolia.
Mongolia is rich in natural resources, and the mining sector has been one of the main drivers of its economic growth as it accounts for more than 20% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry.
Unfortunately, environmental protection efforts have lagged behind the mining industry's expansion, resulting in devastating impacts on the country's pristine natural environment.
It is said that environmental impacts have been exacerbated by the location of many mining operations at the headwaters of Mongolia's river systems.
More than 360 rivers, streams, lakes and springs in the country have dried up in 2022 alone mainly due to an irresponsible use of the land and natural resources, according to the environment ministry.
In addition, unpaved rural roads have been playing an important role in accelerating the country's desertification and land degradation.
Mongolia has a state road network of over 112,400 km, of which only 7,830 km are paved, official data from the country's Ministry of Road and Transport Development showed.
A project called Millennium Road, aimed at connecting the country's 21 provinces with the national capital Ulan Bator by paved roads, was completed in 2022, and the above-mentioned 7,830 km of paved roads were built within the framework of the project.
In other words, most roads in Mongolia are unpaved. As a result, drivers arbitrarily create "new roads" in rural areas, causing soil degradation.
Meanwhile, Mongolian herders nowadays prefer to ride motorcycles to look for livestock instead of riding horses, which also contributes to the country's pasture degradation to a certain extent.
A nationwide tree-planting campaign called "Billion Trees" initiated by Mongolian President Ukhnaa Khurelsukh is the country's main effort to combat desertification.
Since the launch of a tree-planting campaign in October 2021 to plant at least 1 billion trees by 2030 to combat desertification, Mongolia has planted more than 16.7 million trees across the country, according to the environment ministry.
Under the campaign, the country plans to plant 42.9 million trees this year.
"Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. We believe that it is necessary to spend more money on the protection of the environment and the fight against climate change," said Yangug Sodbaatar, chief of staff of the president's office.
In this regard, the country has decided to spend annually at least 1% of its GDP on combating climate change, desertification as well as planting trees, the official said.
The Asian country is also interested in cooperating with foreign countries and international organizations to combat desertification.
Mongolia's national committee in charge of climate change and reduction of desertification is cooperating with other countries, including China and South Korea, to learn from their experiences in supporting tree-seedling enterprises, helping tree farmers, and creating new jobs while promoting their anti-desertification plans, Bat-Erdene said.
In November 2022, Mongolia signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Union (EU) aimed at partnering in the sustainable management of the forestry sector, making Mongolia the first Asian country to join the EU's Forest Partnerships.
Moreover, Mongolia is expected to host the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 2026.
Relevant Mongolian officials and experts firmly believe that organizing the conference holds great significance in amplifying the Mongolian voice on a global scale regarding the issue of desertification in Mongolia, bolstering international cooperation in combating desertification, and attracting investment in this field.