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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.
"Without 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 grass.

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 animals.

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 ourselves."

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 livestock.

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 Red Cross.

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 indeed.

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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