Among the men and women who live the difficult life of nomads, a particularly harsh winter is known as a "dzud," a Mongolia-specific winter disaster which succeeds widespread summer droughts and threatens livestock survival. For the past three years, dzuds have wreaked havoc across the country. More than 6 million animals, already weakened by scarce summer feeding, starved to death when heavy snow blanketed the scarce pastures left.
The situation has been exacerbated by a fourth consecutive year of extreme winter weather. An estimated 24,000 animals died from the harsh conditions within just the first two weeks of the new year, and 2.4 million livestock are expected to be killed in the coming months.
More than 665,000 people have been affected in 17 of Mongolia's 21 provinces. The loss of livestock and livelihoods have driven tens of thousands of people in search of work to areas where there are few or no welfare support structures to help them.
With the spring thaw still several months away, humanitarian agencies are rushing relief to the thousands of residents struggling to survive.
In November, 2002, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation) undertook an in-depth analysis of the impact of the severe winter weather.
"The Red Cross Red Crescent assessment found that the impact of the previous three dzuds had left many herder families totally unable to cope with yet another disaster," said Richard Grove-Hills, head of the International Federation's East Asia regional office in Beijing. "The number of herders who have lost all their livestock has increased while the under-nutrition and stunting of children is becoming more common as families become destitute."
In response, the Federation issued an appeal on Jan. 17, for $2.7 million to support the Mongolian Red Cross in assisting 115,000 of the most vulnerable residents through the winter and spring months. Families will be provided with food, warm clothing for children and boots for adults so they can continue to herd remaining livestock on foot if their horses die.
The Mongolian Red Cross will also distribute radios among herder communities, a vital source of weather information as well as advice on health and agricultural issues.
As temperatures across the region continue to plunge, the the Mongolian Red Cross is also providing urgently needed relief.
"The situation among herder families is now critical as what fodder they may have is running out," said Samdan Dobje, Secretary General of the Mongolian Red Cross. "It won't be until May when animals can again have access to pasture. The next few months will be really difficult and among those who have already lost a way of life, and those herders who face that prospect now, we are seeing increasing levels of depression and mental illness.
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