Are nomads a climate-change weathervane?


Nomads on the Changtang, Ladakh, 2010.

Fear and fascination govern how urban types see nomads, writes Tom Hart.

There may be good reason for the fear: nomads can be supreme conquerors. That old rascal Genghis Khan, the 13th century emperor who united nomadic tribes and founded the Mongol Empire, made sure that during his time neurotic types twitched more than usual when strange dust clouds appeared on the horizon.

And fascination, too: nomads brought with them unusual goods for trade, along with stories of life beyond an artificially built environment. When citizens tire of taxes, mortgages and bureaucrats, life in a tent on an ancient hunting ground becomes appealing.

That changes when the first toe is blackened with frostbite, of course.

And it goes some way to explain why people pay a ‘Khan’s ransom’ to holiday in a yurt. It also explains why there are ‘tech nomads’, because anyone with a degree and an internet connection wants a title with more anthropological weight and fewer sinister overtones than ‘drifter’.

Urban civilizations have done their best to curtail nomadism. It’s a life that doesn’t fit well with owning vast tracts of land and an ordered, well-administered state.

What states have failed to achieve deliberately might be finished by climate change accidently. Ironically, the moment in history when states more or less tolerate nomadism could also be the very moment when the environmental basis for the phenomenon could be undermined.

Climate change is expected to undermine fodder and drinking-water availability for the animals that nomads rely upon, as well as changing disease distribution along common migration routes.

‘Droughts have been always [been] part of nomadic life. For centuries nomads have developed livelihood strategies well adapted to cope with droughts by spatial and temporal mobility of their herds, granting emergency pastures for droughts, informal risk-sharing networks and adapted breeds,’ says Birgit Müller from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who has conducted research into the effects of climate change on nomads.

Playing the nomad game

Snakes and ladders might broadly sum up nomad life, but the Helmholtz Centre has developed a board game that’s an even more precise simulation and allows players to develop strategies to deal with everyday nomad challenges, from droughts to rising prices on the world market.

Difficulties come when nomads no longer carry out strategies to reduce risk, she adds. ‘A major challenge is the expansion of arable land on former pastoral land, especially on drought reserves. Large agricultural schemes are supported by several African governments, such as Ethiopia,’ she says.

Where a government or aid agency sees ‘wasted’ public land, nomads see an important reserve for difficult times. If this land is developed for agriculture then nomads can lose an important back-up without anybody noticing.

Climate change alone is not enough to eliminate nomadic groups. Müller points to a variety of factors, including land-use conflicts and social change. What climate change adds is an additional stress point.

‘To my point of view, the most important way to increase resilience to climate change is to maintain and facilitate the application of nomads’ traditional strategies to deal with climate risk and especially drought, such as transboundary mobility and pasture reserves for emergency times,’ says Müller.

‘Mobile pastoral land use is the most appropriate form of land use in most arid areas and should be supported by national and international development interventions,’ she adds.

One possible way to improve resilience in nomadic groups is for nomads to take out insurance for adverse weather; a pilot project at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi is investigating this possibility.

Simulation models to predict the impact of changing climate patterns and inform policy are another area being investigated at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.

‘The aim of these models is not to make predictions, but rather to understand better the relationship, to detect key factors and to raise awareness of possible unintended side effects without harming the vegetation and people in reality,’ says Müller.

When the Mongols conquered Baghdad in 1258, the legend goes, the River Tigris ran black with ink from books burned after the city’s library was sacked. It wasn’t a complete enough job to stop the move to industrial civilization, whose 21st-century technological innovations might provide the necessary tricks to keep today’s nomads moving.