ARVAIKHEER, Mongolia, March 29 (Reuters) - The impact of Mongolia's harshest winter in 30 years is spreading from the countryside to cities, where high food prices are likely to squeeze already tight urban incomes, government officials said.
Herders who have already lost more than 1.8 million head of livestock now face a battle to save newborn animals in the March-April birthing season on grasslands stripped bare by a punishing winter, which followed the worst drought in 60 years.
The worst hit provinces of Oevorkhangai and Central Gobi, which provide most of the capital Ulan Bator's meat supplies, have lost more than 850,000 head of cattle, officials said.
"The rise of expenditure spent in food products will be felt in people's net income, and will have an impact in people's standard of living in cities," said Oevorkhangai governor Batmoenkh.
Mongolia appealed for international aid last month after blizzards buried pastures which feed the livestock on which one third of Mongolia's 2.4 million people depend. The summer drought cut the hay crop which is stored to supplement winter fodder.
The U.N has said more then 500,000 people have been directly affected and many areas would be hit by hunger for the next 12 months.
WINDS, SANDSTORMS TO COME
Although the coldest season was over, sandstorms and high winds were expected in the next two months and hundreds of thousands more livestock in Oevorkhangai alone could die before new grass began to grown in late May or June, local officials said.
"If they had another severe snowstorm over this period, there would be significant losses, not only in adult sheep and goats and cattle, but also the new-born," said agricultural economist Roger Lough, who is conducting a study in Oevorkhangai for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Some fodder aid was being provided to the worst-hit areas, but aid workers appealed for more funds and supplies.
"These animals are starving to death, that's why they are dying like they are," said veterinarian Paul Kline, who is monitoring distribution of U.N. aid.
"The cold is the factor but they just don't have the fat or the body weight to survive. There's a lot that could be done if we are able to intervene quickly enough," Kline added.
"There are a number of animals whose chances of survival would greatly increase if we could make available some basic things like more fodder, some veterinarian medicines and some basic support."
In a worst case scenario, if 25 to 50 percent of remaining animals died in the next two months, then people in some areas would not have enough to eat, Kline said.
Batmoenkh said the economic losses from livestock deaths in Oevorkhangai were equivalent to two-and-a-half times the province's annual budget.
"People are psychologically experiencing great difficulties. They are losing the basis of their livelihoods, and once they have lost their herds how could they buy food tomorrow?" he said.
"For our poverty-stricken Mongolia, we can't call this anything else but a disaster."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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