Snow and starvation

One of my first impressions of Mongolia during a visit in 2002 was that it is a land of contrasts and extremes. I’ve now been living in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for 16 months, and the contrasts still stand out. Extremes of poverty and wealth; modern city lifestyle and nomadic herders; space and congestion; and it goes on.

But the contrast that stands out and dominates is that of the weather, and this past year has been greater than normal in its extremes. Mongolia has a continental climate with warm to hot summers and very cold winters. The last winter, some say, was one of the coldest for 30 years, with temperatures dropping to -50°C in some places. It has also snowed more than normal resulting in the fiercest winter in living memory. The previous summer was fairly typical, but with less rain than normal. So this contrast of a dry, warm summer where grass and consequently hay production was poor, followed by a very cold and snowy winter led to what is called a ‘dzud’. This dzud has been very severe.

A friend, travelling in the countryside for a few weeks, stopped at a ger, the traditional Mongolian home. He writes:

“Outside the ger tied up to the truck there was a goat. We asked the herder about how he made it through the dzud. He still had a good size herd. He told us he had close to 1,000 animals but now he has only 200 – 800 of them died in the dzud. The goat that was tied up outside had been found buried up to its back in the snow. It was the only one from that group of his herd that lived.”

Stories like this are typical. Current estimates are that about 20% of the 40 million head of livestock in Mongolia have died. Many that have survived are weak and the spring new-borns didn’t have much of a chance. Many more will continue to die. As of mid-May, there were reports that over 32,700 families had lost at least half of their animals, with over 8,700 households left without any livestock at all.1 A contributing factor to the extent of the disaster has been a huge increase in the number of livestock to beyond what the land can sustain; the Mongolian pastures have been groaning.

But what does this mean? In a country where approximately one third of the population depend on herding for a living, this is devastating. For those who have lost a large majority, if not all of their herd, this means that they now have no form of income. The UN expects 20,000 people to move to provincial centres or the capital to look for work. Unemployment is already near 50% in some places. The price of meat has risen by 50%. Infant and maternal mortality has increased by 30-40%.2 The children of herders are suffering significant psychological effects, among many other knock-on effects.

Many are trying to help but there have been difficulties in such a vast land. JCS is one of many NGO’s playing a part in distributing aid supplies and also looking to the future trying to advise on animal and land management. All that JCS does is done through the local church, but the Mongolian church itself is poor. I went with a JCS dzud relief trip to a small town with a church with which JCS has connections. Aid was given out to 200 families who had lost all their livestock, yet this was only scratching the surface; just as the livestock try to scratch through the snow and ice to find some grass hidden below, so it seemed with our relief efforts.

Summer is now here. Temperatures have been in the high 30’s. It has rained. The grass is green. It can be easy to forget the groaning and desperation of the cold and snow of a few months ago; the contrast is stark. But for many the devastating effects will last for years to come.

Photo: A car buried in a snowdrift; desperate Mongolians await food handouts run by a Mongolian Christian group; a Mongolian ger during a blizzard; Bactrian camels coping with the winter as best they can; Mongolian herders receiving food and other supplies.