Mongolia: bone-numbingly cold

Written by Katherine Williamson, Humanitarian Child Protection Advisor.

“Would you like to go to Mongolia? There’s a ‘dzud’ and the office would like someone to go and assess the impact on child protection.”

Hmm…I have no idea what a ‘dzud’ is.

Mongolia? I think of galloping horses, rolling green hills dissected by a gently steaming trans-Siberian express train, tented homesteads full of ruddy-cheeked children, and – of course – great woolly yaks grazing the hillsides.

But this is January, and the sun-kissed images that my mind conjures up are buried deep under a succession of heavy snow falls.

Save the Children’s vehicle gets stuck in the snow

Really, really cold winter

To be honest, I’m a bit scared. I’ve worked in conflict zones and emergencies all over the world, but I’ve never worked anywhere bone-numbingly cold.

The emergency has arisen because this is not just any cold winter, but a really, really cold winter – even by Mongolian standards!

As it turns out, a ‘dzud’ is when harsh weather conditions prevent livestock from grazing during the winter, leading to widespread livestock deaths.

A dzud creates a crisis when it overwhelms the capacity of communities and authorities to prevent and respond to its impact.

Snow covers everything

Uniquely stunning

Neither the scenery nor the weather disappoint. Mongolia is uniquely stunning.

In the mountainous areas, it’s a mild -20 C; on the steppes (a region characterized by grassland plains without trees) the wind howls without break, stirring the powdery dry snow into small dunes, slicing through exposed flesh and bringing tears to my eyes.

I’m well wrapped up and toasty within a warm car, but as I look out of the window, I think of the children who’ve gone home to their families for the winter holidays – many of whom will spend the day outdoors, helping herd and tend the livestock they rely on for their livelihoods.

It’s an astonishing testimony to human adaptation in the face of extreme climates. It’s also an extraordinary risk to the health and safety of the children involved.

The last dzud

The last time Mongolia experienced a dzud was in the winter of 2009–2010, when a fifth of the animals in Mongolia died, 9,000 herder families lost all of their livestock, and many more lost the majority of their animals.

Families who had tended livestock as a way of life for generations, suddenly had to find alternatives.  For most, this meant migrating to county and provincial centres, so that adult family members – and some older adolescents – could find casual employment in markets, construction sites, or mines, or by working as hired help for richer herder families.

Many parents and caregivers are still forced to leave their children in the care of neighbours or relatives while they migrate in search of opportunities.

The impact of the loss of identity has been profound for these families. An increase in depression, alcohol use, and violence within the home are all attributed to loss of livestock and livelihoods in that dzud.

Fragile livelihoods

As we move between different rural communities, it becomes apparent that the full impact of the harsh winter this year won’t be felt for some weeks to come, with the scale of the problem dependent on what happens with the weather between now and then.

The fragile livelihoods of impoverished herder households hang in the balance: will the steps that the government has taken to open roads and provide additional hay and fodder for the livestock be enough to prevent widespread livestock death, or will further snowfall put yet another layer between the animals and their pasture, and threaten their survival?

The more I learn about Mongolia, the more I’m struck by the complexities it faces. Although the second largest landlocked country in the world, Mongolia is dwarfed by its two giant neighbours – Russia and China.

No time to lose

It’s not enough to remain uncertain and let the situation unfold. If we act now, we can prevent the suffering this would cause to herder families and children.

This is Asia, but with snow, furs and vodka.  The country has moved through cycles of transition – from socialism to democracy and a free market economy – and the subsequent waves of rural to urban migration this transition has caused.

The environmental impact of the growing forestry and mining industries feed the increase in natural disasters – droughts, floods, fires and dzuds – making traditional rural livelihoods increasingly precarious and fuelling rural to urban migration.

While the government should be commended for the preventative steps taken during the current harsh winter, the real challenge still lies in addressing these underlying structural issues.

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