Mongolia's herders threatened again by cruel winter

by France Hurtubise, in Bolgan province, Mongolia
For many, the steppes of Mongolia are among the most stunning places in the world. But look closely, and they reveal a tale of bitter hardship.

Mongolian herders, who for centuries have lived off both livestock and the land, are struggling to survive. For the fourth successive winter, blizzards, heavy snowfalls and extremely low temperatures have followed severe summer drought. Now the livelihoods of hundreds and thousands of herders are threatened.

As many as 665,000 people in 17 of Mongolia's 21 provinces are affected by the disaster - or dzud. The coming months will be severe: fodder to sustain animals through the winter has largely gone, and the livestock will have no access to pastures until the snow melts.

Badamjarav had to walk 17 km to the nearest town for help. She borrowed a hundred bales of hay to feed her 20 goats, cows and single horse. She can only hope that it lasts until the end of April.

The 63-year old widow and her 24-year-old pregnant daughter Oyungerel, are one of five herder families living on the hills of Khar Boekhiin Davaa, in Bulgan province.

Badamjarav left the neighbouring province of Arhangai in the 1970s in response to an government invitation to help build the new city of Erdernet. The whole family moved and her husband was employed at the iron factory. But when he died in the 1980s, they had no choice but to return to herding.

Every year, she sees her herd getting smaller. Last autumn, she was forced to slaughter her sheep as they were too weak and would probably have not survived the winter. But still she remains hopeful: "Even if we don't have many animals, we have a good life, we just need to save those we have left," says Badamjarav. But that is becoming much harder to do with each disastrous year.

Herders are helplessly watching their entire herds slowly die. The animals, already weakened by the summer droughts, are thin. With little fat or meat left on their bones, an estimated 2.4 are expected to die in the coming months. Frozen bodies already litter the countryside after around 24,000 animals perished in the first two weeks of January alone.

"This spring, the situation is likely to be worse. The herders won't have anything left to feed their animals," warns Major Boldbaatar of the Civil Defence Emergency Commission. "If the animals are weak, they won't reproduce. In the mid- to long-term, that means the end of the herds."

Some herders, like Badamjarav's new neighbour, Handsuren, have migrated in the hope of finding better pastures. She arrived from Bayanhongor province in the autumn of 1999.

"Life is so hard, and it will just as difficult in the future, because our animals are dying out and we depend on them for a living. We have no other profession," says the 67-year-old, who thought he was moving to a better life.

Three summers of drought have left little grass under the thick layer of snow and withered the crops used for winter fodder. In just one year, he has seen his herd reduced from 350 cows, sheep and goats to a meagre 60 animals. Ewes have become too weak to nurse their lambs, so the herders are taking them inside their 'ger'- the traditional felt home - and are feeding them powdered milk.

Handsuren's wife, Dashnymjil, worries for the future of her children. "We can't do anything but face the facts and get used to the situation. I think I personally will be able to adjust to what happens, but our children's lives will become dire. My son and daughter have no profession," she says.

In the face of a fourth disastrous winter, the International Federation has launched an appeal for 2.8 million US dollars to assist 115,000 herders. The Red Cross assistance throughout the 17 affected provinces will provide supplementary food, warm clothing for children and boots for adults. Mentally and physically exhausted by their experience, it is those herders who have been rendered especially vulnerable by the dzud that will be helped.

In Orkhon, one of counties in Bulgan province, all members of the Lhamjav family are deaf. Only Galina, the granddaughter, knows how to read and write. "It is very hard to make contact with people because of our handicap," writes Galina. "Animals have been dying. We have very little money, we are running out of food."

The whole region gets very cold at night, with temperatures dropping to as low as minus 45 degrees Celsius. There has been more snow and more frequent snowstorms than in previous years.

In some areas, such as Buregkangai county, vehicles have not been able to reach remote herder populations. Between 50 and 60 per cent of the people here have been cut off since mid-December.

For many, the only solution is to move to already sprawling urban areas. Unskilled, they may find temporary reprieve in working for someone else. Ganbat, who suffers mental illness, receives a monthly pension of 10,000 togrop (US$ 9). He and his wife have lost their only cow, and now live in the county's main town. The only way they survive is by occasionally taking care of another family's animals.

"We get some wheat flour and rice and some little things for taking care of these animals when the owner goes away, and that is how we get some food to eat now," says Naraa, Ganbat's wife.

"But in future, our life is going to be quite difficult because we have no animals of our own," she adds, with a touch of shame.

The loss of this traditional way of life has been accompanied by a significant rise in depression and mental illness among former herders.