Dzud: Why animals are dying at an alarming rate in Mongolia

Five-year-old Enkhnyam, whose family Save the Children is supporting with vital animal feed to keep their meagre herd alive, clutching one of his family’s baby goats, who has managed to survive despite the brutal dzud in Mongolia. Photo: Tansagmaa Tsog/Save the Children
Five-year-old Enkhnyam, clutches one of his family’s baby goats, who has managed to survive despite the brutal dzud in Mongolia. We are supporting his family with vital animal feed to keep their meagre herd alive.

Nestled between Russia and China, covered in snow, and with a population of only 3 million people, Mongolia doesn’t get a lot of international press.

But across the snowy Mongolian plains, sheep, goats and cattle are dying at an alarming rate. Families who rely on these livestock for their food, milk, clothing and income are becoming increasingly desperate.

Thanks partly to climate change, a scorching summertime drought last year destroyed up to 80% of the wheat crop. It also destroyed much of the grazing.

This difficult summer was followed by an unusually harsh winter – which added a thick, impenetrable layer of ice and snow. The ice and snow has removed any hope of the grazing animals reaching the grass beneath.

This destructive combination of drought and heavy snow is known locally as a “dzud”, and it’s deadly – temperatures dropped as low as -50°c in some areas.

This is the brutal, deadly side of climate change.

Uncertain future

The dzud comes to an already troubled nation. A general slow-down in the Mongolian economy, coupled with very high levels of individual debt and the inability of Mongolian herders to meet internationally accepted quality standards for meat (affecting their ability to export), means that the majority of Mongolians are already worried about what the future holds. Adding in the latest mass animal deaths tips the scales even further towards a full-blown crisis.

I’ve been sent to Mongolia as part of Save the Children’s emergency response team. We’ve been quietly working here since 1994, and we helped families as they recovered from a brutal dzud in 2009 and 2010. We’ve seen it before, and we know what it means. And like the Mongolian people we’re here to serve, when we recognised the warning signs, we moved as fast as we could.

But it’s hard to raise funds for a country that few people seem to care about, that fewer people (myself included) could pinpoint on a map. Gaining media coverage is even harder.

The emergency response itself is a herculean task. It takes several days to reach the most vulnerable people, travelling off road. Your lorries carrying aid (also off-road) will almost certainly become stuck in the snow or mud – or a wretched combination of both – for hours, or even days.

Some areas are so remote that you can drive for hours and hours and not see another living soul. It’s a challenge.

Donate to our Emergency Fund

A way of life under threat

Mongolians have been “a mobile people” for thousands (possibly millions) of years. Nearly every aspect of Mongolian society has been influenced by a strong tradition of nomadic-pastoralist livelihoods.

The Mongolian diet, ceremonies, cultural identity, and even the tourist industry all have their roots in a longstanding nomadic lifestyle. Now that way of life is under threat.

Nomadic families are increasingly moving to “ger districts” – slum areas – on the outskirts of the capital Ulaanbaatar, giving up their nomadic lifestyle and instead looking for low paid, regular work. More often than not, they’re unsuccessful, and they join the ranks of the unemployed. This dzud will increase that number.

Children at risk

Nomadic herder children are uniquely vulnerable in a “dzud”. They rely on animal fur to keep them warm, animal’s milk to keep them nourished, and the income from the herd to provide access to education and healthcare.

Dried dung from the animals serves as fuel for the stove, and they use wool to insulate their tented homes. When their livestock begins to starve, their world falls apart. Desperate herder families start to cut back on the essentials – things like good food, medicines and soap, saving the money instead for animal fodder.

The 28,000 children under five are particularly at risk – stunting already affects up to 25% of children in some areas and that rate could rise due to the combination of poor nutrition and lack of sanitation, condemning a generation of children to a life of under-achievement, ill-health or both.

How we’re helping

To prevent this, our emergency response team in Mongolia is rapidly distributing nutritious animal fodder, fuel to help hospitals run outreach programmes in hard-to-reach communities, and cash grants for the most vulnerable families to buy nutritious food and essential items like soap.

We’re also supporting specially designed education programmes for the children of herder families. But we can’t do this alone, time is running out, and few outside of Mongolia seem to know or care about the damage the dzud is doing here.

If Mongolia is a seldom-thought-of country, this is definitely a forgotten crisis – and we have a very narrow window to make a difference to thousands of lives. The birthing season is upon us, and the new pasture will come through in a few months.

Mongolians are a resilient people, but they need a little bit of help until then. We are working around the clock to help sheep, goats and cows survive until then, so that the families and children that rely on them can survive too.

Our Emergency Fund has allocated funds to help to kick-start this response in Mongolia – donate now.

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