Mongolian experiences highlight benefits of interdisciplinarity

The many benefits of taking an interdisciplinary approach to research were highlighted by the experiences of three York graduate students who participated in a shared field experience in Mongolia last fall. Master’s students Korice Moir and Roberta Hawkins, both in the Environmental Studies Program, and Paul Marmer (BES ’06), in the Biology Program, spent two months working at the National University of Mongolia (NUM) as part of a project dealing with water and sustainability. The group returned with an enhanced appreciation not only of water issues, but of the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to studying those issues.

Above: The Mongolia field team; Roberta Hawkins (left), Professor Gail Fraser, NUM Professor Soninkhishig (Sonya) Nergui, FES Dean Joni Seager, Paul Marmer, Professor Dawn Bazely and Korice Moir

The students travelled to Mongolia as part of SWiM – Sustaining Water in Mongolia: A Human Security Approach for Good Governance. Part of the overall development of the relationship between York and NUM (see the Nov. 7 issue of YFile), the SWiM project was spearheaded by Dawn Bazely, biology professor and director of the Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS), Joni Seager, dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), and Gail Fraser, professor of environmental studies. They travelled to Mongolia in October to build relationships with Mongolian colleagues, learn more about the work being done there and craft a work plan for the students.

That work focused on helping NUM biology Professor Soninkhishig (Sonya) Nergui set up a new Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) program. IWRM is an approach that emerged from the Global Water Partnership and is grounded in the view that since water is a finite resource, all its various uses must be considered together in order to understand how those uses affect each other and how to best achieve social, economic and environmental goals.

Left: A Mongolian herder’s ger (tent) in the Gobi Desert. The ger is the traditional dwelling of the Mongolian peoples.

“The idea is for it [IWRM] to be a participatory program that brings all the stakeholders together,” explains Moir. “Although different groups have different interests, the IWRM approach attempts to get people to balance their interests with their responsibilities and to highlight issues of sustainability and equality.”

Since this process involves consideration of a broad range of interrelated factors, a large part of the York team’s role was to model interdisciplinary research approaches for their NUM colleagues, particularly since NUM was developed under the Russian model of universities with rigid disciplinary boundaries. NUM faculty members were especially intrigued by York’s FES, which, from its 1969 inception, has been structured to facilitate an interdisciplinary approach to research and encompasses professors with a broad range of areas of expertise – essentially the opposite of the Russian model. Seager and Fraser gave a presentation on FES to their NUM colleagues.

The students, who arrived in Mongolia in late October after their professors, primarily conducted their work at NUM, researching and setting up a library of electronic resources, presenting workshops on various aspects of the IWRM approach, and helping with English translation, among many other things. But they also took a trip to the Gobi desert to learn first-hand about the 14 per cent of Mongolians who live in nomadic herder populations. In the Gobi, the students helped conduct participatory research organized by the non-profit Steppe Forward program – named for steppes, a dry, prairie-like landscape that covers about a quarter of the country – run by NGO activitist Jargal Jamsramjav and housed in NUM.

Right: Livestock and herders at a well near Bayantsogt soum (district). The photo portrays the habitat degradation due to high densities of livestock near Ulaanbaatar and other major trading centres.

“The Gobi trip was the highlight by far,” says Hawkins, who, as part of her IWRM work, presented workshops and conducted research on how gender issues can affect people’s relationship with water. “Everyone was tremendously welcoming, and it was amazing to see how bringing different herder groups together in conversation about water issues inspired cooperation and community solutions.”

Hawkins is particularly interested in how the inclusive nature of the IWRM approach can help include women’s voices in decisions about water management. “Gender issues often tend to get compartmentalized away,” she says. “But when you’re in the community having conversations about water, the whole range of issues comes into play. I literally saw how all of the different things I learned in my classes came together – and were important.”

Marmer, whose research focus is on the influence of grazing pressure on vegetation dynamics, and who is going back to Mongolia this summer to conduct further research, also emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of his Mongolian experience. “My bachelor in environmental studies degree focused on conservation ecology and environmental management, and definitely influences how I understand and approach my research. Having an interdisciplinary background helps me see different ways of asking questions and has broadened my overall perspective. It’s tremendously valuable to my work.”

“I feel really fortunate to have been part of the whole experience,” says Moir. “It’s one thing to read how something works in a case study, but quite another to talk about issues with someone actually dealing with them. I really saw how easy it is to divide issues around something like water into disciplines or government departments. But it’s much more challenging – and useful – to bring them all together again.”