the traveller / The Backwater on the Frontline of Climate Change

3 March 2015

In many ways Mongolia is a traveller’s paradise. The culture is distinct, the history is colourful and there is more supermarket shelf space devoted to cheap vodka and hazelnut spread than in any other nation. The main drawcard though, is the vast and relatively untouched wilderness. Visitors arrive in their thousands each year to explore the wide, empty expanses from the discomfort of (ironically) overcrowded jeeps. Appearances can be deceiving though – as imperceptible as it might be to a tourist bouncing through postcard scenery, climate change is an inescapable reality in Mongolia. It is a threat that looms large over the landscape and people.

Mongolia itself has little to answer for when the climate change ledger is examined. With the lowest population density of any nation and a quarter of its three million inhabitants living a nomadic existence, Mongolia’s collective footprint is on the lighter side. The same cannot be said of its neighbours, China and Russia, who rank first and fourth respectively on the carbon emission charts. With neighbours like these and rampant emissions elsewhere, Mongolia is suffering collateral environmental damage. It seems unfair but, owing to little more than its location, Mongolia is on the frontline of climate change… and the mercury is rising rapidly. Warming at a rate over twice the global average, the country is also experiencing a sharp decrease in rainfall. Scientists have predicted widespread water shortages and the collapse of ecosystems in the coming years, placing the culture and livelihood of the nomadic population in very real danger.

This prognosis is believable if, like most travellers to Mongolia, you arrive in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. A world away from the wilderness threatened by climate change, the city is bleak, congested and polluted – an urban planning nightmare. It is home to half of Mongolia’s population but desperately lacks adequate infrastructure. Once you are outside the city limits however, Mongolia is largely true to the sort of portrayals you find in travel brochures or nature publications. The Soviet era apartment blocks gradually give way to suburban gers (yurts) and these, in turn, are swallowed by endless rolling hills. The landscapes beyond are as grand as Ulaanbaatar is uninviting: from the vast green carpet of the steppes to the barren expanse of the Gobi Desert, the broad bands of larch and birch to the shifting mountains of sand at Khongoryn Els. Time, distance and natural beauty all collude to make environmental catastrophe seem as far removed as the city itself.

Of all the superlative-inducing landscapes in Mongolia though, Lake Khövsgöl in the far north is perhaps the most important. It is one of the world’s oldest, largest and purest lakes (clean enough to drink from directly). It is also the source of 70 per cent of all fresh water in Mongolia and a generous contributor to its big sister in Russia, Lake Baikal.

Two small towns, 136 km apart – Hatgal and Khank – bookend Khövsgöl, but human contact is rare between these outposts. On the middle and northern shores you’re more likely to cross paths with reindeer or wolverines than people and the dwindling number of nomads who remain are struggling to eke out a subsistence lifestyle from the unforgiving environment.

Lake Khövsgöl is a symbol of Mongolian fertility, but one increasingly at risk from the alarming rise in temperature. Extensive research has been carried out in the region in recent years and the findings make for grim reading. Water is evaporating, soil is drying and permafrost is thawing. Under such conditions, grazing opportunities decrease, vulnerable species die out and pests thrive. While little, perhaps none, of these effects are immediately evident to international tourists (nor, indeed, to Mongolian tourists), they are devastatingly evident to those who rely on the ecosystem. Environmental instability is proving too much for many nomadic Mongolians, who have been forced to give up their way of life for the burgeoning confines of Ulaanbaatar.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the lake, the nomads and Mongolia though. The current government has tightened existing environmental laws to slap greater penalties on polluters. They have also implemented an environmental audit schedule and pledged to place 30 per cent of Mongolian territory under protection by 2030. Moreover, various independent campaigns and movements have been launched calling for increased conservation efforts in Khövsgöl National Park. With the government and sections of the public now echoing the concerns of scientists, Mongolia seems to be taking the threat to the Lake, and to the environment in general, seriously. If other, less committed nations (such as Australia) adopt a similar approach to climate change, vulnerable ecosystems such as Lake Khövsgöl might stand a chance.

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