Mongolia

Mongolian Herders Fight For Survival on the Frozen Steppes

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Written by Cynthia Long, Managing Editor, DisasterRelief.org
The spring thaw is a long way off for herdsmen on the frozen steppes of Mongolia. In the next three months more blizzards are expected to choke the central part of the country with blinding snowfall and deepen an already impenetrable ice cap over grazing pastures. Months of severe weather have caused a catastrophic loss of livestock and have made every day a struggle for the people who depend on the animals for survival.

Harsh weather has killed more than a million head of livestock in central Mongolia, the mainstay of the rural economy and the sole source of food for herders and their families. The herds were weakened after a prolonged drought last summer. Large swaths of grazing land were destroyed and field rats devoured what little fodder was left. Already hungry from the drought, the animals started dying in October when the pastures were buried by an unusually early snowfall that kicked off the harshest winter the region has experienced in 16 years. The freezing temperatures, dipping as low as 50 below zero, are expected to last at least another two months.

The State Emergency Commission in Mongolia has recently confirmed that 80 Soums (counties) in 12 Aimags have been designated as emergency sites. The government is currently measuring the impact almost exclusively on the basis of the number of dead livestock. Unconfirmed reports, as of March 1 indicate that more than 1.3 million animals (cattle, sheep and goats) have died and that many households have lost 60 to 70 percent of their herds. The worst hit areas are Bayankhongor, Dundgobi, Zavkhan, Uverkhangai and Uvs Aimags.

An estimated 300,000 herders and their families are now facing serious difficulties following the large scale loss of their animals. To put this into context, 30 percent of Mongolia's total population of 2.4 million are nomadic herders. Each nomadic family needs some 250 mixed livestock to be self-supporting. If this number falls below 150, then a family is considered to be living below the poverty line.

Traditionally, the nomadic population lives on a diet high in meat and dairy products and supplemented by wheat, millet or rice. The national drink is airag - fermented mare's milk. With the continued loss of livestock, this diet is likely to change and there are concerns that such a dramatic change could adversely affect the health and nutritional status of the population.

The nomadic herders are in danger of losing all of their livestock to the harshest Mongolian winter in 16 years. An estimated 2,000 animals are dying each day. The head of the Mongolian Red Cross Society's disaster relief department, Batgerel Gombojav, says another 500,000 animals are expected to die by spring.

"We estimate that in the next few weeks at least 2,000 households will lose all their animals, their entire livelihoods. We need to get help to them as soon as possible," Gombojav said.

Many of the herders have also lost their horses to the severe winter. As one of the only remaining horse-based cultures left in the world, Mongolians cherish their horses and the animals are still the main mode of transportation. But with most of their horses dead, the herders have to search for their sheep, cattle and goats on foot. To help make the hunt easier, the Mongolian Red Cross is distributing winter boots sturdy enough to walk long distances in deep snow to 1,200 of the worst affected families.

In the hard-hit central province of Dundgobi, a 65-year-old widowed herdswoman named Bayarsaikhan has weathered a lifetime of winters in the district of Delgertsogt. She's experienced many disasters, but said this "is the worst ever."

The freakish string of weather events has occurred so frequently over the years that Mongolians have a name for it -- they call this type of disaster a "zud." A zud is characterized by an extensive and prolonged drought during the summer, followed by early and heavy snowfalls, interspersed with rain. Freezing temperatures then create an ice cap over the ground. During a zud, the drought weakens the animals' ability to withstand the cold and fodder shortages, and the ice cap prevents them from reaching what little grazing pasture is left. Soon the livestock population starts falling.

Years ago, Bayarsaikhan's parents wanted to send her to school in Ulan Bataar, the nearest city and a seven-hour drive away, but she wanted to lead a quiet life out on the steppe. She said it used to be a good place to live with plenty of pasture for her animals, but no longer. Bayarsaikhan has lost more than half of her cows and a quarter of her sheep and goats. Her grandsons have skinned the animals, but their thin pelts were practically worthless in the barter trade of the Mongolian steppes.

Bayarsaikhan's nearest neighbor is Enkhsuren, a 44-year-old single mother in Sain Tsagnav district. Living with her family of seven in a traditional felt tent, a ger, Enkhsuren is worried that she will soon run out of food. Of 80 cows, only four are left.

More than half of her 700 sheep and goats are also dead. "The animals are our only source of income," she said. "There is no other work here, this is and has always been our way of life. Without our herds, we will have no food."

Now dogs and ravens feast on the frozen carcasses of cows, horses, goats and sheep. Every morning Enkhsuren and her two sons-in-law find more dead animals and the few sheep and goats in the shelter beside the ger are too weak to eat what little hay is left.

The Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) is worried that malnutrition will soon creep in among the herders who depend on the animals' dairy and meat products. Beyond hunger, the bitter cold also stalks the traditional people of Mongolia. They normally rely on animal manure for heating fuel but now have to burn their furniture to keep warm.

After launching a national appeal to raise money for nearly 30,000 disaster victims, the Mongolian Red Cross is providing candles, matches, flour, rice and warm clothing to 800 families in two provinces.

The American and Russian embassies have also donated funds to the relief effort.

The president of the MRCS, Dr. Odonchimed Luvsangyn, said the impact of the disaster will be felt for a long time. Among those animals that manage to survive the winter, few will give birth in the spring. Without large-scale restocking of herds across the country, the situation for the herdsmen can only worsen.

DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement.

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All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013.

The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross.

© Copyright 1999, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.

DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.