From the steppe to the city

20 Nov 2023

A social transformation is underway in Mongolia, as many nomadic pastoralists move to urban areas. Geographer Lukas Lehnert investigates what this means for the environment and ecosystems. From the research magazine EINSICHTEN

The Mongolian steppe is the largest grassland ecosystem in the world and of huge global importance. Mongolia is home not only to the famous Przewalski horses, but also to the last wild gazelles of Eurasia, which roam the steppe in herds of thousands and characterize the landscape. This system is worth conserving simply because of its uniqueness and biodiversity alone. But that is not all: the grasslands of Mongolia also store enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.

However, Mongolia and the way of life of its population are changing. Over recent decades, the economy and infrastructure of the country have undergone fundamental changes. LMU geographer Professor Lukas Lehnert's research group wants to discover what this means exactly for the steppe ecosystem. The LMU researchers are playing a leading role in a large-scale project with various partners from Germany and Mongolia.

Yurts in the Mongolian steppe are now equipped with satellite reception and solar panels.

Nomadic pasturing

Instead of horses, people now drive their herds by motorcycle, solar panels provide electricity in the yurts, and the mobile phone network and Internet reception are becoming more and more widespread.

© picture alliance / prisma | Blum Bruno
Yurt in the Mongolian steppe

Endless vastness

"Because the land is so flat, you can often see for miles and underestimate the distances," describes Lehnert. "Neighboring yurts appear very close, even though they are actually several hours away on foot." | © picture alliance / Shotshop | robra

Mongolia’s economy is highly dependent on the country’s natural resources. A large portion of its gross domestic product comes from coal mining, oil production, and copper mining. Along with prosperity, these industries also bring environmental destruction. Traditionally, the Mongolian population engages in nomadic pastoralism. And far from big cities and mining areas, many people still roam the country with their sheep, yaks, cattle, camels, and horses. Grass grows as far as the eye can see, with a few solitary yurts scattered here and there.

Life as a nomadic pastoralist is hard work and full of privation. There are no sanitary facilities or supermarkets. Children have to be sent to boarding schools. However, the people do not live as they did 100 years ago: Instead of horses, people drive their herds ahead of them on motorcycles, and they pack their yurts in a truck and drive to the next pasture. Mobile solar panels supply electricity to the yurts, while mobile and internet coverage are becoming more extensive all the time, giving the nomads an insight into modern urban life. Many families are deciding to leave the steppe behind them and move to one of the cities in anticipation of nicer living conditions and higher and more regular income. The capital city Ulaanbaatar and the provincial cities have already grown massively on account of this exodus from the countryside.

Transition to urban life

Everyday life in big cities is radically unlike existence on the steppe. “Urban life is pretty much the same there as it is over here,” says Lehnert. Yet one feature of the Mongolian capital does not exist anywhere else on Earth: “In a sense, there are two Ulaanbaatars.” On the one hand, there is a city much like modern American or European capitals. In the north of Ulaanbaatar, however, there are so-called ger districts – ‘ger’ meaning yurt. These areas are full of little parcels of land surrounded by wooden fences, each containing a yurt. This is where families settle when they first arrive from the steppe. As soon as they have saved enough money, they build themselves a little hut on their parcel of land or move into Ulaanbaatar proper.

The so-called ger districts in the Mongolian capital.

A world in between on the outskirts

In the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, families arrive from the steppe and settle in their yurts. They mostly use coal for heating and need a car to get to the city. Sewage and waste disposal are also a problem in the informal settlements.

© Lukas Lehnert
Einsichten-Cover: Echt Jetzt - Künstlich, Natürlich: Die Grenzen verschwimmen

Read more about the boundary between the artificial and the natural in the current issue of our research magazine EINSICHTEN at | © LMU

“The ger districts are unique worldwide. They are not comparable with slums, even if they might resemble them at first glance,” explains Lehnert. The income structure and the social conditions are quite different. Nevertheless, the informal yurt settlements create massive problems for Ulaanbaatar. People need a car to get into the city, and this causes congestion. On some days, the whole city is one big traffic jam. In the ice-cold winters, the yurts are heated almost exclusively by coal. As a result, Ulaanbaatar is covered by an impenetrable blanket of smog, and it becomes impossible to see beyond a distance of around 200 meters.

Many do not want to give up their animals at first, seeing them as a sort of insurance or pension. Often an extended family bands together and one person looks after the herds of four or five families, or else they hire somebody to manage the animals. These large herds are generally kept not far from the cities, where grazing becomes concentrated on a certain area.

Dissected landscapes

The trans-Mongolian railroad line is completely fenced in. The vegetation inside and outside the fence is very different.

Fenced tracks

The tracks of the Trans-Mongolian Railway are completely fenced off. Herds of wild animals are unable to cross this artificial obstacle. | © Lukas Lehnert

Traditional Mongolian agriculture by itself presents no problem for the environment. “This ecosystem is naturally grazed,” says Lehnert. As long as people do not overuse the land, the pastoral system can be very much sustainable. It becomes a problem only when the grazing pressure gets too high, causing the land to become degraded. Since 1990, economic slumps and the privatization of herds have led to an extreme rise in cattle numbers. As a result, there is more livestock overall, which is less mobile and clustered around popular ger districts.

Another problem is the growing infrastructure, which is restricting the mobility of wild herbivores. The Trans-Mongolian Railway runs from the Chinese border in the south to the Russian border in the north, dividing the land in two. Because the rails are completely fenced off, herds of gazelles are unable to cross this artificial barrier. The same goes for other rail routes and roads, which are being built primarily for the transport of goods in mining regions. “When we fitted gazelles with GPS transmitters, we could see that they went into mining regions and couldn’t find their way out again,” says Lehnert.

The Mobility at risk: Sustaining the Mongolian Steppe Ecosystem” (MORE STEP) project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is seeking to ascertain how acute and serious these changes are for the natural equilibrium of the steppe. The interdisciplinary project is a collaboration between institutions from Germany and Mongolia: LMU, Senckenberg Museum, the Institute for Social-Ecological Research in Frankfurt, Dresden University of Technology, the National University of Mongolia, and the Mongolian University of Life Sciences. In addition to natural and social scientists, the project draws on the expertise of NGOs, conservation organizations, political actors, local authorities, and the pastoralists themselves. Representing LMU, Lehnert’s research group is in charge of remote sensing. This involves close cooperation with the Senckenberg Museum, which is responsible for botanical and zoological analyses.

Scientists take a close look at the vegetation on the ground.

Botanical analyses

"Among other things, we work on a very small scale, i.e. with plots measuring one square meter," explains Lehnert. "We carried out so-called spectrometer recordings on site. These are very high-resolution data obtained from the botanical plots."

© Daniel Svanidze

The goal is to provide extensive information about the condition of vegetation and biomass as well as changes in them. As a general rule of thumb: the more grazing, the less biomass. In reality, however, the situation is somewhat more complex. “We have a large climate gradient in Mongolia: In the south there is the Gobi Desert, while in the north the steppe turns into forest,” explains Lehnert, whose team also utilizes drones and satellite data.

Mongolian railroad model

Based on their measurements, the researchers can make statements about where the biomass increases or decreases over time – and ideally discover what the reason is. Over the past few years, they have already been able to show that the causes are complex, with strong local variation. “We would sometimes find a large biomass in one valley and a relatively small biomass in the neighboring valley, even though herd sizes and climate were identical,” recounts Lehnert. “Additional factors we don’t yet understand seem to be at play.” Discovering these unknowns is the current focus of the project. Steppe fires could well be one such factor. Although the Mongolian grasslands burn regularly, there has been little investigation before now of what effects this has on vegetation, species composition, and grazing quality.

The aerial photo clearly shows how different the vegetation inside the fence is from that outside.

Drone image of the trans-Mongolian railroad line

"Along the entire Trans-Mongolian Railway, you can see at first glance that tall, intensely green vegetation thrives inside the fence, while outside it is very barren and yellow," describes Lehnert.

© Daniel Svanidze

For all the difficulties it poses to wild animals, the fenced-in trans-Mongolian route is particularly interesting for Lehnert’s investigations. “All along the Trans-Mongolian Railway, you can see at first glance that tall, intensely green vegetation thrives inside the fence, while outside the fence the vegetation is very sparse and yellow,” explains the geographer. “This is a good model for us to see how large the biomass would be over the entire climate gradient from north to south without any grazing, compared to the intensive agricultural grazing right alongside it.” The researchers hope that studying this during the remaining two years of the project will give them a better understanding of the small-scale patterns in the biomass.

Herder knowledge meets high-tech research

The researchers use remote sensing methods with drones and satellite data for their investigations.

Exploring the steppe from above

Lehnert and his team also use drones and satellite data to study the biomass. | © Karsten Wesche

Using vegetation modeling, the researchers simulate what would happen when it gets warmer or livestock numbers change. This allows them to identify areas that are already strongly degraded, or even irreparably destroyed, and those where the situation is more relaxed and could accommodate more grazing. “We want to share our results with the local actors. We’re developing an information system that can be viewed by local politicians and decision-makers and help them adopt suitable measures,” says Lehnert.

They also plan to make information available to pastoralists in a simplified version for smartphones. However, scientists must demonstrate a certain humility here: “In many respects, the herders know their country better than our satellites. This traditional knowledge is hugely valuable and must not be underestimated.” Nomadism tends to be informal and thus difficult to regulate without encroaching too much on people’s liberties, Lehnert observes. Self-organized herder associations are therefore a promising way forward. After all, as the geographer emphasizes, the pastoralists clearly have an interest in their pastureland remaining fertile and productive in the future. “Pastoralists have a high status in Mongolian society. And the opinions of herders and herder associations carry suitable political clout as a consequence.”

How will this situation unfold in Mongolia? Is the unique landscape doomed? Will nomadism die out sooner or later? Lukas Lehnert believes this must not necessarily be the case. “The herders are proud to be herders. Most of them don’t feel poor, and the livelihood is actually not so bad at all in most cases. They’re often very satisfied.” Furthermore, modern technology enables them to maintain contact in their isolation with friends, neighbors, and family and to make their lives more comfortable.

Overall, Mongolia has the potential to develop in a way that marries progress and sustainability: “In the best case, Mongolia will develop further as a democracy, managing to hold its own between its powerful neighbors China and Russia and continuing to run its economy and do trade in a largely independent fashion. I believe that Mongolian society can pull off a sustainable transformation.”

Coal mining in Mongolia from above.

Irreversible damage?

Mongolia's economy is heavily dependent on the country's natural resources. A large part of the gross domestic product is generated by coal mining, oil production and copper mining.

Prof. Dr. Lukas Lehnert

Lukas Lehnert

The geographer and his working group at MORE STEP are responsible for remote sensing using drones and satellite data, among other things. | © Maik Dobbermann

In the worst case, coal and oil corporations would carve up the land between them and exploit it for all it is worth. What this would mean concretely can be surmised by casting a glance across the Chinese border to Inner Mongolia, where the Chinese government forced a massive intensification of agriculture, leading to huge environmental problems. “The Chinese government has since taken countermeasures and is trying to improve the ecological situation. But the damages are partly irreversible.” As such, the Chinese steppe is an impressive warning to Mongolia not to follow this road.

Lukas Lehnert is Professor of Physical Geography and Environmental Remote Sensing at LMU. MORE STEP – Mobility at risk: Sustaining the Mongolian Steppe Ecosystem is a collaborative and interdisciplinary research project of Mongolian and German partners, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The main objective is to bring together social and natural sciences to identify societal drivers that could lead to an ecological tipping point in the Mongolian steppe ecosystem.

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