Mongolians struggle to rebuild after harsh winter as UN launches appeal
BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Along the road leading to central Mongolia, piles of animal carcasses, some still intact with horns and fur, others just bare bones, lie on the brown, barren land.
They are a symbol of the devastation wreaked by the country's extreme weather - the harshest winter in 50 years that came on the heels of a severe drought.
Almost 8 million animals have died, or 17 percent of the country's livestock, leaving the herders of rural Mongolia without livelihoods, with depleted food stocks and suffering from psychological trauma, aid agencies say. Malnutrition and infant mortality are on the rise. Close to 80,000 Mongolians - about a third of the population - are affected.
With a short summer forecast, the situation looks set to get worse for Mongolia's herders, and for the country at large, relief workers say. Over a third of Mongolia's working population live off livestock herding, according to the World Bank, and meat is the primary source of food for the population.
"Even those herders who are hanging on by a thread in the hope that they can rebuild their livestock are now looking at a very bleak prospect," Rana Flowers, the United Nations resident coordinator for Mongolia, told AlertNet by telephone on Wednesday as the U.N. launched an appeal for over $16 million for Mongolia.
"The country as a whole is going to feel the impact the herders are currently experiencing," she said, adding many Mongolias were "at the edge of destitution".
U.N. figures show livestock accounts for 16 percent of Mongolian GDP.
Funds raised by the appeal will go to education, healthcare, early recovery and agriculture. Herders urgently need help with animal fodder and rebuilding their livestock, as well as with health and food aid, according to the U.N..
"It's still very dry and very cold at night. In the west 60 percent of the territory continues to be covered with snow and the greening process for the production of fodder has not commenced," Flowers said.
The weather pattern experienced by Mongolia is known locally as a "zud" - a complex, long-lasting natural disaster where a summer drought is followed by heavy snowfalls and unusually low temperatures in winter and then by a dangerous spring thaw, the U.N. said.
"We're looking at a short summer and predicting we would still be in zud this time next year," added Flowers.
The government has declared disaster in 15 of the country's 21 provinces following the harshest winter in history where temperatures went as low as -40 degrees Centigrade, a phenomenon unseen even in a country where the population of 2.7 million endures several months of temperatures below 20 degrees C.
The prediction of a short summer is adding misery to the more than 9,000 families who have lost all their animals and over 30,000 who lost more than half, aid agencies say.
The presence of millions of animal carcasses, strewn in piles about the open landscape, is also worrying relief workers.
"When the weather warms up and they start to melt and decay, it poses significant health risks to many people," said Mitsuaki Toyoda, country director for Save the Children in Mongolia.
For many herders, losing their animals is a psychologically harrowing experience with dire consequences. They lose their source of cash income, of food and fuel.
With no ability to raise capital to buy new animals, many will move to small towns where gainful employment is scarce, or to the capital Ulan Bator, which is already under stress from pollution, overcrowding and mass unemployment and lacks basic services and facilities in many areas.
The situation is so severe that Flowers said the U.N. expects that the number of people who will migrate to urban areas will be higher than original estiimates of 20,000.
Families "are really in a numb and bewildered state. They all reckoned they have no immediate option but to move to a very small country town and try and make a living there," said Francis Markus, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in East Asia.
A move, especially to the capital poses serious problems for herders, who have lived a nomadic life in the open countryside. They have to navigate numerous administrative procedures, something the Mongolian Red Cross is helping them with.
"If they have not gone through the required procedures to transfer their residence to Ulan Bator, they cannot find legal formal employment and they also cannot get entitlement to government services such as health and education," Markus added.
WORRIES OVER CHILDREN
Aid agencies are also concerned about the long-term implications the zud has for the country's children. With school terms over by the end of May, struggling herder families will have the added burden of feeding their children who have returned from school dormitories. "We're concerned that some of the children who returned home may not be able to return to school because their families are unable to afford the expenses," Save the Children's Toyoda said.
There may also be issues of child labour as demands will increase on each family member to support family income, he added.
Already, there is a 35 to 40 percent increase in infant and under-five mortality in the affected areas, Flowers said. Child vaccination rates have plummeted to 57 percent in some areas from previous highs of more than 95 percent, maternal mortality has almost doubled, and malnutrition is expected to increase.
In its appeal, the U.N. said the zud in Mongolia "has evolved slowly and has progressively widened its geographical reach, forcing ever-growing numbers of people in rural areas into a battle for basic survival."
"In the long-term, it's certainly going to affect the poverty levels in Mongolia," Toyoda said. "At the moment, a third of the population lives under the poverty line (less than a dollar a day). This number will go up."
(Editing by Katherine Baldwin)
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