Mongolia

Mongolian herdsmen fight for survival on the frozen steppes

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It takes seven hours to drive across the vast expanse of the Mongolian steppes from Ulan Bator to the central province of Dundgobi where nomadic herdsmen are caught in a bitter struggle for survival.
A drought in the summer, followed by the demolition of what little grazing there was by field rats meant that by the time the harsh winter set in, livestock, central to the lives of the herdsmen, had started dying. In the severe winter snow and frost, the worst in 16 years, the number of dead animals has risen dramatically - 500,000 animals have died already and another 2,000 are dying daily. Some families have lost their entire herds.

Dundgobi province has been particularly badly hit. Bayarsaikhan, a 65 year-old widowed herdswoman in the district of Delgertsogt, has seen many disasters in her lifetime but "this is the worst ever", she says. She has lived all her life in Delgertsogt. Her parents wanted to send her to school in Ulan Bator but she ran away, wanting only to tend to her animals out on the beloved steppe. This used to be a good place to live, she says, good pasture for her animals. But no longer. Bayarsaikhan has lost more than half of her cows and a quarter of ther sheep and goats. Her grandsons have skinned the carcasses of the dead animals but the hides are of inferior quality and are not worth much in the barter trade of the Mongolian steppes. Asked if they are worried about the future, they can only shrug.

Bayarsaikhan's nearest neighbour is Enkhsuren, a 44 year old single mother in Sain Tsagnav district. Sitting with her family of seven in her traditional felt tent, the ger, Enkhsuren is worried that she will soon run out of food. She used to have 80 cows, now only four are left. More than half of her 700 sheep and goats are dead. "The animals are our only source of income," she says. "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 there is.

The Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS) is worried that malnutrition will soon creep in among the herdsmen, deprived of their traditional dairy foodstuffs. Red Cross staff and volunteers have begun to distribute some aid - candles, sugar, tea, matches and warm clothes. There are even some sweets for Bayarsaikhan and Enkhsuren's families, a token of celebration of the Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year in this Buddhist country.

The president of the MRCS, Dr. Odonchimed Luvsangyn, says 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.

=A91997 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies