Extreme cold forces families from traditional living to urban slums

By Pekka Reinikainen, Finnish Red Cross

In Mongolian, dzud is a silent disaster. Very few people will know the word, even if thousands suffer from its consequences. It is not an easy word to translate.

Dzud is heralded by a dry summer resulting in a poor harvest of hay for winter feed. Black dzud is characterised by extreme cold – down to -50°C – and white dzud is this cold accompanied by huge amounts of snow. It is a phenomenon that can have a major effect on the lives and livelihoods of those living in Mongolia.

Mongolians have grown used to dealing with the effects of cold, but dzud kills cattle when exposed to dropping temperatures and biting winds. Animals may also suffer from hunger as grass becomes buried under snow or encased in thick ice.

For thousands of years nomadic Mongolian herdsmen have felt protected and safe under the open skies of the steppes and deserts of this vast country. But as a direct result of dzud, thousands of herders and their families are forced to resettle away from the places they called home, and end up cramped in the tented slums of the capital Ulaanbaatar and other cities.

During the journey from the borderless expanse to the slums of the cities, these formerly free people lose not just livelihoods, but also culture and traditions that have evolved over thousands of years.

The development of the market economy, which started early 1990, left many Mongolians unemployed, and an estimated 150,000 more people took up herding. The animal stock of the country – cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats, and sheep – grew from 26 million heads in 1992, to 33 million in 1998. Overgrazing of the land exacerbated the effects of the dzud period.

Mongolia experienced its worst dzud in 2009-2010, where 8.5 million cattle – 18 per cent of the national herd – died during the winter. In the aimag (province) of Uvs, night temperatures fell as low as -48°C, and this cold lasted for 55 days. The region worst hit was the aimag of Uvurkhangai, which lost 1.6 million animals, almost half of its cattle. Earlier in the decade, this region suffered four dzuds, three of them in consecutive years.

Between 1999 and 2002, dzud killed 11 million cattle. More than 9,000 families lost all their livestock, and 33,000 families lost half their herd.

For Mongolian herder families, losing the herd equals the end of the world, and this is the fate of tens of thousands of families who have moved to the cities, most of them to the slums of Ulaanbaatar.

In response to the dzud, from the summer of 2010 through to the spring of 2011, the Finnish Red Cross received funds from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) to carry out a programme with the Mongolian Red Cross Society. Nearly 9,000 people affected by the dzud were given assistance to recover faster and improve their resilience to future disasters.

The programme concentrated on the most vulnerable families, such as single parents or woman-headed households, exceptionally large families, families in extreme poverty, as well as families with members with disabilities, in five rural provinces and nine districts of the capital city Ulaanbaatar. More than 2,700 households still practising the traditional nomadic herder lifestyle received support in the rural provinces and 5,040 people, displaced internally as a result of losing their livestock and livelihoods, were also targeted with social care home visits and material support.

In addition, programme activities helped prepare communities, Red Cross branches and local authorities for the next dzud. Through training and other support – such as reinforcing homes and increasing hay stocks – people learned how to bounce back faster after the next disaster.

Since 2009, the Finnish Red Cross, the British Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have also supported Mongolian Red Cross Society’s social care programmes directly, aiming to mitigate the effects of the social disintegration resulting from dzuds and related phenomena.