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Desertification in Mongolia

I have a particular interest in how humans live within the natural world and took many related courses at university. This was my favourite.

Figure 1: Map showing levels of desertification across Mongolia

Figure 1: Map showing levels of desertification across Mongolia


Desertification, one of the ultimate forms of soil erosion, has become increasingly widespread in Mongolia and has greatly impacted human and natural communities. Mongolia is situated in between China and Russia, and occupies little space on the international stage due to its minimal exports and struggling tourist industry, leading to its environmental problems often going unnoticed. As desertification is one of the most debilitating forms of land degradation, often irreversibly changing land cover, many mitigation and reversal techniques have been engaged in an attempt to curb its spread and impact. A UNEP report stated that 400 lakes and rivers have dried out, forest cover has decreased by 1.4 million hectares, and 46.5% of agricultural areas have suffered (Garchinbyamba and Kang, 2013). Given the severity of this problem, the mitigation measures put in place have often been rushed and ineffective, and due to the country’s economic status, nonexistent altogether. As nearly 90% of its land is viable for agriculture or pasture (Dorj et al, 2013) there is no doubt that Mongolia is and will be seriously affected both economically and environmentally by desertification, therefore it must be ensured that these mitigation methods are researched, effective, and appropriate. This article will discuss the current approaches to desertification in Mongolia, and assess the current understanding of this serious form of land degradation.


Desertification is a form of land degradation where soil in dry areas becomes more vulnerable to erosion, such as by deforestation or overgrazing, and subsequently loses its moisture and vegetation. This results in the soil becoming infertile and unprotected against further erosion as it can be blown or washed away. Additionally, if the land is intensively farmed for crops the soil loses its nutrients and capability for further vegetation growth, also leading to desertification. The decrease in the soil’s organic matter content is a key accelerating factor in soil erosion, as the organic matter aids stability, increases the infiltration rate and water capacity, and maintains resistance to wind and water erosion (Kosmas et al, 2013). Therefore, desertification solutions are less to do with water resources and more to do with soil conservation (Agnew, 2002). Additionally, once certain land components are degraded beyond specific thresholds, desertification will proceed uninhibited and lead to irreversible change with the end result being unproductive and unsupportive soil (Kosmas et al, 2013). Given Mongolia’s already dry disposition and unique pastoral system it is unsurprising that such high levels of desertification have and are occurring, especially as 70% of the world’s arid lands have shown signs of desertification (Kosmas et al, 2013). Identifying and monitoring this and other forms of land degradation has also been under scrutiny as the methods used would need to be specific to the area, and a generalised approach can often be ineffective due to geographic and cultural variability. It is important to take into account local variations as no two points of arid zones are alike, meaning that generalities made about arid lands should be approached with caution as each area has its own unique combination of terrain, soil, vegetation and moisture (Agnew, 2002). In addition to the lack of localised mitigation strategies, there is still disagreement as to the meaning of ‘desertification’ and its part in land degradation, and even confusion when assessing how desertified an area is. This confusion has indeed led to ‘shortcomings associated with its ability to identify and measure degradation and disagreement over what desertification actually is’ (Behnke, 2008). Assessing the degradation level of an area requires knowledge of the past landscape to establish a reference indicator of its current state, as an area may be returning to a naturally arid state after being actively vegetated by humans, or is in a much higher level of degradation than thought if no records are available. It is at this assessment stage that local knowledge is integral to the understanding of an areas current state, meaning that scientists and local communities must work together to combat desertification. In addition to this, concerns over desertification usually have nothing to do with the loss of environmental quality, but rather the resultant reduction in economic potential as agricultural yields decrease and communities are forced to move away. Agnew (2002) proposed 3 reasons why the physical environment is often neglected when assessing desertification; confusion over the nature of environmental change, the greater emphasis of human influences of degradation and the uncritical reporting of environmental problems. As it would appear narrow minded to blame desertification entirely on natural environmental changes, research focuses have moved from environmental causes to social and economic ones, but in doing so may have left too much behind. This can be detrimental to desertification control as plans made for it would not have taken into account all contributing factors, and only fixing one may accelerate others.

Causes and Barriers

Figure 1 shows the current state of Mongolia’s natural land cover, with large expanses in the central and southern regions classified as undergoing heavy desertification. This country is in an extremely susceptible and dry area with low humidity and is therefore always affected by drought and desertification (Garchinbyamba and Kang, 2013), and is increasingly strained under the growing influence of climate change. The Gobi desert lies in the southern area of this country, and can put further stress on the already vulnerable land in proximity to it (as can be seen in figure 1 as the areas closest to the Gobi desert have higher desertification levels) which furthers the difficulty of maintaining it. Additionally, the Mongolian Steppe to the southwest is one of the world’s largest grassland ecosystems, but it has been found that roughly 70% of it is degraded (Hilker et al, 2013). There can be many causes to desertification, however, in Mongolia overgrazing is often the primary cause, with changes in precipitation being a secondary contributor. A study of the causes of desertification in a small region in Northeast Mongolia found that the amount of livestock has been increasing each year and is projected to increase by roughly 10,000 by 2019, coupled with a decline in vegetation cover (Garchinbyamba and Kang, 2013). This study’s findings are in agreement with Hilker’s (et al, 2013) conclusions from satellite observation that there is a ‘clear connection between increases in animal population and decline in vegetation density.’ Furthermore, the degradation of Mongolia’s grasslands and those of western China has been thought to stem from cultural and economic factors. A comparison of Tibetan and Mongolian communities herding on grasslands found that Mongolians imposed a greater grassland pressure from keeping more sheep as they are ‘more market oriented,’ however, they are more involved in rat eradication than Tibetans (Qin et al, 2008). Rats have been found to be a major contributor to grassland degradation in this area, but strong Buddhist beliefs often prevent Mongolians and Tibetans alike from eradicating them, furthering their impact. Therefore, it can be said that mitigation and adaptation techniques cannot be applied in any area, as factors such as cultural barriers may be present.

Combating Desertification

Various strategies have been introduced to combat desertification, aiming at both short and long term results. For example, it is recommended to remove livestock from degraded grassland pastures for 4-5 years to allow for natural regeneration, and traditional planting of perennials may promote rehabilitation in desert areas (Garchinbyamba and Kang, 2013). Mitigation techniques such as the ‘Great Green Wall’ (GGW) that is being established throughout the Sahel region may not be suitable for parts of Central Asia, given that the problem there isn’t expansion of the Gobi Desert, but independent areas of degradation, as shown in figure 1 where the Northwest of Mongolia is under significant stress but is further from the desert. The GGW will help to stop the spread of the Sahara as a vegetational barrier against it, reducing wind speeds, soil erosion, moderating temperatures and increasing the potential for agriculture (O’Connor, 2014). Barriers like this one do not apply to Central Asia’s issues - however smaller belts of a similar nature could help curb the expansion of areas desertified beyond repair. For example, in Inner Mongolia (N. China) the planting of Chinese licorice inside mats of wheat straw has been widely engaged to fix sand in place and reduce wind erosion (Cao et al, 2018) this has also been found to positively affect local economies due to increased exports of this licorice. China has been actively promoting the conservation and development of local vegetation resources, however this could prove difficult in Mongolia as nomadic communities may not stay in areas long enough to properly re-establish the local vegetation. There has been much debate as to the suitability of the methods used, ranging from fears of loss of cultural traditions to lack of funding. As stated by Dorj (et al, 2013), these measures are often generic approaches that may not be specific or appropriate for the area under question, and little thought is given to financing and implementing such measures. It has been said that although this county’s vegetation has been described and some plant communities studied, little is known about the vulnerability of its ecosystems to human activity and climate change (Hilker et al, 2013). With regards to loss of cultural traditions, Mongolia’s population is mainly Buddhist, nomadic, and still leading a ‘traditional’ way of life which is not necessarily aware of their environmental impact. In a study of improving Mongolian herder’s livelihoods in the Altai Mountains, it was concluded that they are faced with the ‘triple challenge’ of developing a sustainable pasture management system, handling the ‘economic and political opening up,’ and ‘unlearning’ of a centrally planned society (Ykhanbai et al, 2004). It would appear that much of the disagreement to adopting new techniques could also be related to a loss of control or respect of their communities as a result of external or foreign environmental bodies taking ownership of the degraded areas. Agreements have been made to ensure that local knowledge is recognised as a valuable resource and integrated into scientific knowledge and monitoring as this would help communities living with land degradation to feel more empowered and motivated to tackle it (Behnke, 2008). Most of these agreements, such as the 1994 UN Convention to Combat Desertification do not appear to have fully established this empowerment. However, Northern China has had a marked success at controlling desertification through establishing strict government legislation, mostly as a result of spending US$1 billion to plant trees in stressed areas from 1978-2007 (Cao et al, 2018). In addition to this, their government provides policy development and financial support for local desertification control projects, which helps to build empowerment of the communities facing it. Mongolia could learn from China’s successes and begin to combat desertification through economic development, as it has been shown to increase economic, environmental, and societal well-being in the long run.


In conclusion, desertification in Central Asia, although recognised as a serious environmental and socioeconomic issue, has not received enough attention to work out effective and localised strategies. It has been said that there is a need to combine scientific and local knowledge to work out the best mitigation techniques and understanding, however there appears to be a significant lack of evidence of this occurring. In addition to this, a clearer and universal understanding of the meaning of desertification needs to be established along with processes designed to identify the level of desertification and apply appropriate techniques that are flexible enough to use in all areas. There is also a significant lack of literature analysing how effective restoration methods have been, and more work should be done to fix this.

References and Further Reading

Agnew, C. (2002). Drought, Desertification and Desiccation: The Need for Further Analysis. Geography, 87(3), pp.256-267.

Behnke, R. (2008). Socio-Economic Causes and Consequences of Desertification in Central Asia, The. NATO Science for Peace and Security Series. Springer, pp.13-31.

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Cao, S., Liu, Y. and Yu, Z. (2018). China's Successes at Combating Desertification Provide Roadmap for Other Nations. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 60(2), pp.16-24.

Creators. (2018). Giant Billboards Paint a Discordant Portrait of Mongolian Desertification. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Mar. 2018].

Garchinbyamba, M. and Kang, H. (2013). Analyzing causes of desertification in Bayankhangai soum, Tuv province, central Mongolia. Forest Science and Technology, 9(2), pp.59-64.

Heshmati, G. and Squires, V. (2013). Combating desertification in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Dordrecht: Springer, pp.217-223.

Hilker, T., Natsagdorj, E., Waring, R., Lyapustin, A. and Wang, Y. (2013). Satellite observed widespread decline in Mongolian grasslands largely due to overgrazing. Global Change Biology, 20(2), pp.418-428.

Kosmas, C., Kairis, O., Karavitis, C. and Ritsema, C. (2013). Evaluation and Selection of Indicators for Land Degradation and Desertification Monitoring: Methodological Approach. Environmental Management, 54(5), pp.951-970.

O'Connor, D. and Ford, J. (2014). Increasing the Effectiveness of the “Great Green Wall” as an Adaptation to the Effects of Climate Change and Desertification in the Sahel. Sustainability, 6(12), pp.7142-7154.

Pike, J. (2012). Mongolia Maps. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Mar. 2018].

Qin, T., Shuhao, T., Heerink, N. and Futian, Q. (2008). Effects of Culture on Economic Performance and Grassland Degradation: The Case of Tibetans and Mongolians in the Qinghai Lake Area. China Perspectives, 74(2), pp.37-45.

Ykhanbai, H., Bulgan, E., Beket, U., Vernooy, R. and Graham, J. (2004). Reversing Grassland Degradation and Improving Herders' Livelihoods in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia. Mountain Research and Development, 24(2), pp.96-100.

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