Mongolia’s apocalyptic sandstorms

Mongolia’s apocalyptic sandstorms
A photograph taken from the International Space Station shows a massive sandstorm engulfing the Gobi Desert.
By Antonio Graceffo May 12, 2021

In Mongolia, one trigger for the government to declare a disaster is a wind speed that exceeds 24 metres per second. This occurred in mid-March, when the country’s largest sandstorm in a decade struck. In Uvurkhangai, Bulgan and Umnugovi provinces the wind speed reached from 18 to 34 metres per second. The wind speed in Dundgovi province, was even higher, at 22 to 40 metres per second.

Other provinces, such as Govi-Altai, Bayankhongor, Arkhangai, Tuv, Khentii, Dornod, Sukhbaatar and Dornogovi experienced less severe, although still dangerous, storms with wind speeds of 16 to 28 metres per second. The storms left hundreds of people missing and claimed 10 confirmed casualties, including one child and nine adults. They also caused the loss of 1.6mn livestock.

A sandstorm rolling in can seem to take on biblical proportions (Image: US Marine Corps, Public Domain).

As international headlines about the “apocalyptic” sandstorms and orange skies relayed, the storms swept across the border into China, pummelling Alxa Right Banner in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Linze county in Gansu Province, with the effects felt as far away as Shandong Province and the Korean Peninsula.

Then, at the end of April, Mongolia and China were hit by second and third rounds of fierce sandstorms. In Mongolia, over 1mn livestock were killed in the first quarter of 2021, most of which died in the southwestern Mongolian province of Bayankhongor.

Human consequences

People who live in the affected areas tell how flying sand strips the paint from cars and scratches the glass. It turns over gers (yurts) and they roll away. “But, actually they are okay,” explains Enkh, “they can be rebuilt easily.” The gers are designed for life on the steppes, including, in the deserts. Although the exterior is made of felt, the wooden frame underneath is very sturdy. The walls are low, at only around six feet high, and the shape is round; consequently, gers can, for the most part, withstand heavy winds.

Gers can turn over and roll away in the wind, but the home can be rebuilt relatively easily (Image: Annawhitney, CC-SA-4.0). 

If they do collapse, Enkh comments, “It’s not dangerous, like a house. Nothing to hit you.” The gers collapse, and possibly blow away, and the family may lose their possessions, but the home can generally be rebuilt, relatively easily.

Enkhbayar Dashdorj, from Khuld sum Dundgobi, close to South Gobi, near the White Stupa, gives his account of what it’s like to experience a sandstorm. “All day and night, it was storming dust and dirt. It just kept pouring with dirt.”[i] North of his location, he says, some gers and fences were blown down.

Herders struggle to protect the lives of their livestock during the most violent sandstorms. Here, a mother and daughter feed their herd grain to supplement their winter grazing in Azraga Bag, Mongolia (Image: Taylor Weidman, The Vanishing Cultures Project, CC-SA-3.0).

According to Enkhbayar, sandstorms are a regular feature of life on the steppes and, usually, the family and the home are unhurt, but when they wake up the next morning, everything is covered in dirt and sand. “Sometimes we just have a dust storm, not a sand storm. Very heavy wind and dust.” But proper sandstorms reoccur. “The storm is not just one time, it comes back in intervals, and blows again. Now every time the wind blows, there's dust everywhere.”

Enkhbayar, like most of the 40% of the Mongolian population who live on the steppes, is a herder. He has more than 100 livestock including sheep, horses and camels. He tells how during one of the latest storms some of the family’s animals went missing and some died. Spring is the time when the babies of the herd are born and many were not strong enough to survive the storm.

The storms did not just claim the lives of animals, they also took the lives of people. “In our province, in total nine folks went missing,” says Enkhbayar.

Sara Baksh, who now lives in Ulaanbaatar but used to live in the countryside, explains that when the sandstorm comes, the herd runs away. According to Erdenmunkh, the animals are conditioned to run with the wind, to seek shelter, rather than running into the wind. “So, the herders chase after the herd, and very often get killed or disappear,”[ii] says Baksh. “It is dangerous, but the herd is their living… Sometimes, the father doesn’t come back. So, the wife or the son go out looking for him, and you wind up with two people missing.”

As a result of the storms, it is difficult to find grass for the animals to graze on. If the animals die, the herders and their families will lose everything. Consequently, the herders try to buy hay or animal feed, but it is expensive for them. A bundle of grass costs about Mongolian tughrik (MNT) 12,000 (about $4.21). Tejeel (grain) is even more expensive at between 25,000 and 35,000 tughrik. The government and some foreign and local NGOs are providing some assistance for animal feed and replacement gers, but not every herder or family qualifies for help.

The storms are known for bringing unsettling orange skies (Image: DVIDSHUB, Public Domain).

Bolorshagai, from Umnugobi Province in southern Mongolia, Noyon soum, says: “I was indoors during the storm. Other than being panic-stricken, and in fear, wanting to stay inside, and wanting to go to the toilet which is outside, and taking care of the livestock, there were no other thoughts.”[iii]

The small details are often the most revealing. Of course, the toilets are outdoors, so during a sandstorm, it may be impossible to go out to the toilet for a prolonged time. Water has to be provisioned, usually in 10-litre containers. If the storm lasts several days, the family may be unable to go out and get water.

The centre of the ceiling of the ger has a wide hole, for the exhaust pipe from the stove. During a strong storm, explains Baksh, the pipe can be taken down and the fire extinguished, so that the hole can be closed. This can be problematic during a long, cold winter, but, says Baksh, the time it takes for a storm to pass is usually not too long, and the stove remains hot for a few hours, so the family doesn’t get too cold.

Bolorshagai tells how storms like those just experienced usually have a severe impact on the daily lives of the herders. Her neighbours, she says, lost more than 80 animals, while her family lost about 30.

Degradation of the Steppes

Each year, more of the steppes change from grassland to desert. Mongolia is also periodically hit by a natural disaster, unique to the country, a weather phenomenon called the dzud. It too kills off livestock. A dzud occurs when an extremely long and dry summer is followed by an unusually harsh winter. A dry summer means that less grass is available for animals to consume, while a colder winter requires the animals to eat more.

In the 2009 dzud, roughly 10mn livestock died across the country. Many herder families lost their livelihood completely and moved to the city, seeking work. Today, nearly half of the residents of Ulaanbaatar live in the ger district, where the coal burned by each family has caused the city to become one of the most polluted capitals in the world.

View of the abandoned city of Khara-Khoto in western Inner Mongolia, China, during a light sandstorm. (Image: BabelStone, CC-SA-3.0).

The desertification of Mongolia has a number of causes, including reduced rainfall. According to a China-based environmentalist, Ma Junhe, “There is little that humans can do to remedy the problem.”

Overgrazing is another significant cause of the degradation of the steppes. Between 1990 and 2018, the number of livestock in the country has increased by 2.6 times. Human populations have increased, across the region, over the same period, as has the average income, and with it, the demand for meat. In China, and Central Asia, similar increases in population and meat consumption have occurred, but with less environmental impact. In Mongolia, the increase in the number of animals is made more extreme, by the limited amount of grazing land. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), there are currently, 33mn more livestock in Mongolia than can be supported by the natural pastureland.

It is not just the increase in the number of animals, but also the types of animals that destroys the steppes. Goats are more destructive than sheep, because goats actually tear the grass up by the roots when they graze. Cashmere, made from goat wool is much more profitable than other animal products, such as sheep’s wool, meat or milk. About half of Mongolian herders live below the poverty line. In the hope of earning a better living, herders have been increasingly adding goats, for cashmere, to their herds. Since 1990, the percentage of goats, among the national livestock herd has increased from 20% to 40%.

The increasing numbers of livestock among large herding operations has driven smaller herders off the steppes, causing a population decrease in rural villages, and a population increase in Ulaanbaatar, as herders head to the city to find work. The transplanted herders are ill-prepared to earn a living in the city; they are unable to speak English or use computers, and most are relegated to the lowest order of manual labour.

Reclaiming the grasslands

There are numerous programmes run by the government, as well as various, local and foreign NGOs, involved in replanting the grasslands. Ironically, Beijing is generally hit harder by sandstorms than is Ulaanbaatar. 

Beijing has this spring been choking on a succession of big sandstorms that originated in Mongolia (Nasa, Public Domain). 

Consequently, even the Chinese government has begun a tree planting programme in Mongolia, in the Gobi. It is funding some of the reclamation efforts to prevent future sandstorms. This year’s sandstorms were so intense, that the Chinese government has vowed to expand the programme.

The author, Dr. Antonio Graceffo PhD China-MBA, worked as an economics researcher and university professor in China, but is now living in Ulaanbaatar, writing about the Mongolian and Chinese economies. He holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport Wushu Department where he wrote his dissertation “A Cross Cultural Comparison of Chinese and Western Wrestling” in Chinese. He is the author of 11 books, including A Deeper Look at the Chinese Economy, The Wrestler’s Dissertation, and Warrior Odyssey. He completed post-doctoral studies in economics at Shanghai University, specializing in US-China Trade, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Trump-China economics. His China economic reports are featured regularly in The Foreign Policy Journal and published in Chinese at The Shanghai Institute of American Studies, a Chinese government think tank.

[i] Enkbayar Dashdorj, interview with Enkhbat, April 30, 2021, by phone, translated and relayed to Antonio Graceffo 

[ii] Sara Baksh, interview with Antonio Graceffo, April 30, 2021, in person, in English 

[iii] Enkbayar Dashdorj, interview with Erdenmunkh, April 30, 2021, by phone, translated and relayed to Antonio Graceffo