A goat lies dead on a hillside in the Ulziit district of Bayankhongor in Mongolia. It is the victim of a dzud, a weather pattern that occurs when a dry summer is followed by a harsh winter. This dzud occurred during the winter of 2015/2016. Photo: Grace Brown / AP

By Joanna Chiu
10 March 2016

ULZIIT, Mongolia (Irin) – Daashka and his brother tear across the Mongolian steppe on a motorbike in a desperate search for somewhere to graze their herds. Pastureland is dwindling rapidly as the country is beset by a cycle of drought and harsh winter that is killing off livestock in droves.

“The summer ends early now and the fall is short and dry. Then there’s the long winter,” said Daashka, a 19-year-old herder who uses just one name and lives in the central Ulziit region.

The family’s herd, mostly sheep and goats, has shrunk from about 1,000 animals to 600, Daashka said, leaning against the motorbike on an exposed patch of dirt that, in other years, would have been covered by the roots of grass and other vegetation.

Mongolia is experiencing a natural disaster called a dzud. The phenomenon, unique to the country, usually occurs after a summer drought is followed by heavy winter snowfall that makes already scarce pastures inaccessible to livestock.

In the past, the country experienced widespread dzud about once in a decade, but they have recently been occurring every few years. Experts say the rising frequency is due to a combination of climate change and human activity, which has increased the size of herds to levels the grasslands cannot sustain.

With temperatures dipping below -40C (-40F) in the evenings and extreme cold expected until April, Daashka’s family saved enough money to buy feed, which they hope will keep their herd alive until the spring.

Other nomads have not been so fortunate.

Half a mile away, about 100 dead goats and sheep were piled up among the rocks. The family was elsewhere with what remained of their herd, leaving one goat clinging to life near the relative warmth of a yurt, the traditional tent dwelling with a coal-burning heater inside. […]

“Global warming is causing about 50% of the problems and local forces cause the other 50%,” said Purevjav Gomboluudev, head of climate research at Mongolia’s information and research institute of meteorology, hydrology, and environment.

About half of Mongolia’s 3 million people rely on livestock production. But with oversupply, prices have plunged on animal products such as milk, wool, meat and camel hair.

Each sheep or goat – the most common livestock – is worth about $30. A cow is worth $250-500, depending on meat quality. A camel is worth about $500, and a horse $200-250, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“Consequently, there is an incentive to increase animal numbers, leading to the colossal numbers we see today, at over 50 million head of livestock, which degrades the precious pasturelands,” said Robert Schoellhammer, country director for the ADB.

The trend has been devastating when combined with climate change. [more]

Climate change in Mongolia destroying pastures on which nomadic herders rely

Mongolian Red Cross Society national disaster response team visits a family during an assessment mission in the area worst affected by the extreme winter conditions known at the dzud in February 2016. Photo: Mongolian Red Cross Society

By Hler Gudjonsson
23 February 2016

(IFRC) – On the vast Mongolian grasslands, livestock are dying in the thousands due to an ever worsening winter ‘Dzud’. Extreme temperatures, snow storms and heavy snowfall, and in many areas a thick layer of ice are preventing livestock from grazing efficiently. These current conditions have been compounded by the effects of last summer’s drought which has left pastures in a very bad condition. Millions of animals are likely to die from starvation in the coming weeks and months, depriving vulnerable herder families of their only livelihood.

“The situation is becoming truly alarming, and Red Cross is planning to launch an emergency appeal this month to attract international support so that we can help the most vulnerable herders,” says Madame Nordov Bolormaa, Secretary General of the Mongolian Red Cross Society. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)  has already released funds from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF)  and is now preparing the distribution of food parcels and cash to more than 1,500 vulnerable herder families. The planned emergency appeal will be targeting several thousand households.

“The temperatures have dropped to -55 degrees and some of our animals froze to death where they stood,” recounted Oyanbat, an elderly herder in Teshig Soum, Bulgan Province when he was visited by a Red Cross assessment team.  He still owns 20 animals but that is all he has to support himself and his sister. If he loses what is left of his livestock he will have no livelihood at all. Finally the elderly siblings may have no choice but to abandon their home on the grasslands in order to survive.

The prospect of losing all his animals and being forced to leave is truly daunting for Oyanbat, who has not visited his own district centre for 10 years, even if it is only 30 km away. He pointed towards his sister who is physically and mentally disabled and in need of constant care.

“I cannot leave her alone in the house except for a few hours at the time, which makes it difficult for me even to take proper care of the animals, not to speak of going to the district centre,” he said.

“One of the biggest problems is the extremely low market prices for any animal products,” said Madame Bolormaa. “This is because many families with small herds are forced to sell their animals for next to nothing, either because they desperately need cash to buy vital necessities, or because they know that their animals will die in the Dzud”.

As so many other poor herders facing this terrifying dilemma, Oyanbat has no other choice but to wait for spring and hope that a part of his little herd will survive and that he will still have a livelihood in the summer. “Without our animals we have no life on the grasslands,” he said as he reflected on his impossible situation. He is grateful for the food that the Red Cross team gave him, but realizes all too well that it is no substitute for a steady income.

While food and cash will ensure the immediate survival of the most affected herders, thousands of families are expected to lose their livelihood in this year’s Dzud. Some will be able to get a job herding other people’s animals for a minimum salary, but others will have to rebuild their lives from scratch, which usually means moving to the so-called “Ger districts.” These are big slums in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and other urban centres where people still live in traditional herder tents, mostly in extreme poverty. 

“For former herders who have no professional skills it is very hard to earn a living in the city, and without assistance many families will be doomed to extreme poverty,” said IFRC Programme Manager Dr Enkhjin Garid. “This is why vocational training and small business development are such an important part of our emergency appeal. It is not enough just to keep people alive for a few months, we also need to ensure that the herders have a secure livelihood in the future.”

Disaster looms for nomadic herders in Mongolia



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