A way of life imperilled
Mongolia's uncertain future
by Caroline Nath
and Ros Armitage
Drought, rats and bitter cold have brought tragedy to millions of
Mongolian families as thousands of livestock died, threatening a way of life
that has existed for generations and exposing millions of people to the
spectre of famine. The Mongolian Red Cross met with families to assess the
extent of the disaster.
Mongolian herdsmen are physically and mentally exhausted following
the most severe winter in 30 years. Some 400,000 nomads, or
40 per cent of the herding population in this landlocked Central
Asian nation of 2.7 million, are affected. Short, medium and
long term solutions are needed if any semblance of a sustainable
lifestyle for those affected is going to be restored.
our animals we have no life," says Nergui Dorj, a Mongolian
herdsman as he skins one of his dead sheep. His livestock are
dying every day from hunger and cold in Dundgobi, one of Mongolia's
worst-hit disaster areas. "If we lose all our animals,
we cannot imagine the future or how we will live," he adds,
a tear rolling down his red cheeks.
Locally referred to as dzud, meaning winter disaster, severe
cold, heavy snowfalls and loss of livestock are not new to this
region. But this year is especially difficult. The worst drought
in 60 years and the destruction of grazing pastures by field
rats, even before winter arrived, contributed to making this
year a multiple dzud. Unusually heavy and sustained snowfalls
followed early in October with temperatures falling to minus
46 degrees centigrade. Weak and hungry livestock could not break
the ice, which had formed over the pasture, to reach the underlying
Mongolian nomads are believed to herd some 33.5 million animals.
By March, an estimated 1.7 million livestock had died. Many
herders have lost a large percentage of their animals, and increasing
numbers of families with total livestock losses are being recorded,
said Rabdan Samdandobji, the Secretary General of the Mongolian
Red Cross Society.
A matter of survival
Animals are the main source of food for the herders. They eat dried meat
during the winter months until the onset of spring when their
diet changes to the traditional 'white foods' or dairy products.
With the dramatic shortage of cows, sheep and goats, there
will not be enough milk for the summer months, let alone for
preparations for the next winter.
The death of so many horses in the most severely affected
areas is seriously hampering transportation and communication
and means that people are unable to reach health centres,
children are unable to get to school, the transportation of
goods has come to a standstill and the isolation of the affected
communities increases. Dung - the main source of fuel for
warmth and cooking - is in short supply due to the loss of
The purchasing power of the herders is affected as well. Traditionally,
March is the best time of year for the herdsmen to sell their
cashmere but the only numbers on the increase this year were
those of dead goats rather than sales of cashmere.
Those with under 100 head of livestock - 54 per cent of all
households - are considered to be the most vulnerable. A serious
dzud such as the current one reduces their herd to a size
that cannot generate sufficient income or resources in terms
of meat, milk or dung to sustain a household.
"We had 60 animals before, now ten are alive," says
Bayartsengel while holding her two four and five-year-old
daughters. Trying to escape the bad weather, her family of
four travelled 60 kilometres to find better pasture for their
livestock. The dzud caught up with them and killed
50 of her animals, including a horse, the family's sole means
of transportation. Bayartsengel estimates that she needs over
200 animals to support her family of four. She received 50kgs
of flour and 25kgs of rice from the Red Cross, which she thinks
will last her family for two months. After that, she says,
"I don't know how we are going to feed our children and
In the event that all her animals die during the spring, Mongolia's
most difficult season, she has thought about going to the
village centre to "make some boots, but without the money
I can't buy any material," she said.
Out of necessity, herders are now having to travel outside
of their normal otor nomadic patterns of movement in
search of better pasture for their remaining animals. In all,
13,170 people with 2.2 million livestock have moved outside
their normal grazing areas, placing an extra burden on neighbouring
areas and host communities. Some families have separated,
with the weak and elderly staying put in the family ger
- a round felt tent - and the schoolchildren left in county
dormitories while the stronger members of the family go off
to other provinces in desperate attempts to save the remaining
Reaching the most vulnerable
In February, the Federation launched an initial appeal to assist the Mongolian
Red Cross to provide support in the form of a supplementary
food ration of wheatflour and rice, and winter boots to herders.
As it became apparent that the disaster was going to have
serious repercussions on the food security situation throughout
the remainder of the year, the Federation issued a revised
appeal in March to extend its support to 35,000 herders over
a 12-month period, including vital support to the Mongolian
Distributions of emergency assistance within Mongolia are
fraught with difficulties. A vast open country with poorly
maintained roads and communication links, coupled with the
often remote and isolated nature of the most affected communities
has posed major challenges for the Mongolian Red Cross. Through
their extensive branch and volunteer network at the community
level, the Mongolian Red Cross is in regular contact with
the herders and consequently have a comprehensive understanding
of the disaster situation.
Red Cross volunteers have had to travel hundreds of kilometres
to reach families. "Volunteers, members and supporters
have tried to distribute to each family though often herders
live far apart from each other and it is difficult to distribute.
Our volunteers are very important both at aimag (provincial)
and soum (district) levels," explained Urjin Sandag,
director of the Red Cross in Dundgobi Aimag, one of the worst-affected
areas. He went on to explain that following the first distribution
in March, the Mongolian Red Cross had received letters and
drawings from herders' families and children. "The herders
who have already received support from the Red Cross want
me to pass on their thanks. This moral and material support
is very important to them."
A way of life in jeopardy
The Mongolian Red Cross is all too aware of the devastating
psychological effects that such a disastrous dzud can
have on the herders. "People are losing all their animals
and the psychological damage is very much there," said
Rabdan Samdandobji. "You can tell by their eyes."
Losing the animals means more than just going hungry. For
generations, the end result of a lifetime's hard work has
been to raise the most productive animals and to pass their
lineage on to the next one. This work laid out by past generations
is now in serious jeopardy, and the survival of a way of life
has been thrown into question as many herdsmen feel they have
nothing to pass on to their children.
But who has the correct formula and of equal importance, the
funds, to help the Mongolian herders? In March the state governor
of Dundgobi province, estimated that it would cost USD 17
million alone to replace the 480,000 dead livestock in his
province. With numbers of dead livestock predicted to increase
until the summer, the situation facing Mongolia is very serious
Caroline Nath and Ros Armitage
Caroline Nath is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. Ros Armitage is a
Federation reporting delegate in the regional delegation in Beijing.
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