What is the meaning of water? In my everyday life, water is a given. Even this year, when at least one quarter of the US has been stricken by drought, water continues to flow from the tap and my family is unaffected by its scarcity. I remember the California droughts of the 1970s, when my brother and I shared bathwater, I learned not to flush so much, and water was rationed. Even still, our very sustenance, our wealth was not threatened by the lack of water. In Mongolia, as in many other developing countries, people depend on water not just to slake their thirst but to sustain their livelihoods. Mongolian herders must bring their animals to a water body daily. In times of drought, most lakes dry up, leaving only a few “permanent” lakes available to dozens of herders and thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of animals. Steppe lakes also serve as virtual “gas stations” for migratory birds and waterfowl – they are hotspots of diversity. Without water, animals perish, food disappears, and people and ecosystems suffer. In a semi-arid region like the steppe, water allows people and ecosystems to transform solar energy into a mobile and flexible product via photosynthesis and primary consumption by livestock. In Mongolia, water is energy.
As part of our new project, we will be collaborating with Avery Cook-Shinneman (University of Washington) to use lake sediments to reconstruct the ecology of lakes and livestock during the Mongol Empire. Lake sediments can provide a broad array of proxies for past ecosystems. We plan to use some of these proxies to estimate past water quality and a relatively new proxy, Sporormiella, to assess the numbers of livestock present during the Mongol Empire. This summer, my student John Burkhart and I visited a number of lakes near the Orkhon Valley, seat of the Mongol Empire, to recon possible sample sites. In the process, we learned to appreciate the role of permanent lakes in Mongol herders’ livelihoods.
Before leaving for Mongolia, we had worked with Avery to identify more than a dozen lakes to recon. We were going to collect water and surface sediment samples from each lake to assess their potential. But upon our arrival in the Orkhon region, we quickly learned that those lakes no longer existed. The decade-long drought that might be only ending in 2012 had left only a few permanent lakes; we noticed much standing water along the highway compared to 2010. Though the large lakes we identified on Google Earth were starting to fill up again, the fact that they had dried up during a recent drought suggested they had dried up in the past, leaving only an intermittent record of past ecology. We began visiting local herders homes (“gers”) to inquire about permanent lakes.
We had used this approach before to look for old trees but Mongolians are no better than Americans at identifying old trees. They always point you to the biggest, most beautiful tree and claim it’s the oldest – when in fact the scraggliest,
ugliest tree is usually much older (Editor’s note: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder). But in the case of lakes, these Mongolian herders were true scholars. Ask any old herder about where to find permanent lakes, and they will tell you in detail the characteristics of all lakes in their region – when they thaw, when they freeze, what kind of plants grow around it and in it, and how likely it is to dry up. I should not have been surprised – their life and livelihood depends on their knowledge and careful management of these lakes.
This kind of ecological knowledge is not new. Mongolians have cultivated knowledge of lakes for millennia. The first permanent lake we visited was less than 5km away from an Uyghur fortress dating to the 8th century.