Winter Slams Mongolia’s Herding Families

Mongolians typically accustomed to harsh winter conditions are facing additional problems in this year’s dzud. The combination of a dry summer yielding little fodder for animals, severe winter temperatures dipping as low as 50 degrees below zero and unusually large amounts of snow has affected 12 of the nation’s 21 provinces over several months.

Frozen and starving livestock along the roads create an eerie scene. “We would see a distant figure out there, or figures, and then you sort of drive by and see this animal just frozen to death lying on the side or standing almost frozen,” said Arshad Sayed, the World Bank’s country manager for Mongolia, who toured the country to gauge the problem.

The massive loss of livestock has taken a toll on the nearly 40 percent of Mongolia’s population that rely on herding for a significant part of their livelihood.

View an audio slide show on the harsh winter. As a warning to readers, some of these images contain graphic material:

"The only means of generating some cash these days: it's only bringing the dead carcasses into their homes, warming them up, removing the skin and selling the skin for something like 50 U.S. cents, whereas the cost of fodder has tripled by traders and also because of transportation costs," said Buyannemekh Chimeddorj, local program officer for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Mongolia, which is a third as large as the United States but has less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, has few paved roads. Many regions have become entirely inaccessible, cutting herding families off from medicine, education, fuel and many other basic necessities, aid groups say.

Aid organizations are starting to respond. The U.N. Development Program recently announced it will spend $4 million on a cash-for-work program. Nearly 60,000 of the hardest-hit herders will be paid to remove the carcasses of millions of goats, cows, yaks, horses and camels that have perished.

The worst is yet to come, warned Chimeddorj. "The dzud is in its beginning stage. Millions will die mostly in the spring when the livestock are already very exhausted and no more fodder is left," he said.

Migration to urban centers is also something that Chimeddorj said is a concern. "There are no other employment opportunities provided by other sectors," he explained. "They will not go into mining, they will not go to industry, there is not much of that in this country."

According to Sayed, the wide-scale problem is an opportunity to address the larger issue of overgrazing, which some believe played a part in this year's dzud. He is working on a program that will insure livestock so herders "don't have to worry so much about increasing the size of the herd, but about the quality of the herd."

All photos courtesy of the World Bank and FAO's Buyannemekh Chimeddorj.