By Mitsuaki Toyoda, Save the Children’s Country Director in Mongolia
Livestock are dying again
Remnants of last winter’s “dzud” in Mongolia aren’t hard to find – a cow horn pokes through the thick blanket of snow, a decaying horse skull sits by the roadside, goat ribs hidden beneath the ice crunch under foot.
Now livestock are dying again in significant numbers as arctic winds sweep down from Siberia across Mongolia’s pastoral lands, pushing temperatures as low as -50 degrees Celsius.
In the province of Arkhangai in the country’s centre, vultures sit and wait for livestock to die, surveying the land and preparing to feast.
The ravens are less respectful. They search for weak lambs and calves, then peck out their eyes and tongues.
More than 40,000 animals have already died in this “dzud” – an extreme winter phenomenon unique to Mongolia that typically brings brutal temperatures and a shortage of food for livestock, whether it be from snow and ice blocking access to pasture or because summer drought prevented pasture from growing in the first place.
Often the number of animal deaths reaches seven figures. Last year more than a million perished. During the 2010 dzud it was over 8 million.
Though current losses are concerning, it’s the coming months I’m most worried about. Spring is the birthing season here, and also the dying season.
It’s when stockpiles of animal feed run out and livestock are weak from the relentless cold. If there’s another big dump of snow or extreme cold spell, we could see millions of animal deaths this year too.
The poorest suffer most
Almost always it’s the poorest families who suffer most – those with small herds and even smaller stores of feed.
They don’t have enough livestock to weather another disastrous dzud. One bad snow storm, one cruel spring, and they will be left with nothing.
For herders, having livestock means having food, nutritious milk and warm clothing; their fleece and meat are a source of income. If they lose their animals, they lose their livelihoods and entire way of life.
Families forced to leave herding behind
Right now more than 150,000 herders are affected by the dzud, the most destitute increasingly moving to urban centres to try and find income anyway they can.
Often with few skills they struggle to gain employment and instead rely on sparse government payments or illegal activities like unauthorised mining.
Many live in squalor and poverty; a harsh life ordinarily but especially in the depths of the unforgiving Mongolian winter.
Mishigdori Amarjargal, her husband and their six children are among those living on the edge in Arkhangai.
They watched more than 200 of their animals die last winter; their herd now a mere 80 livestock. They moved to a nearby town and receive government assistance to buy food, school materials and other basic essentials.
“We lost our livestock, what can we do,” Amarjargal says, almost in tears.
A longstanding tradition at risk
Yet at the same time there are over 60 million livestock in Mongolia, a whopping figure that’s more than doubled since the 1990s and the end of the Communist era when the “national herd” was a state asset and managed accordingly.
These animals are degrading the land at a rapid rate which in turn amplifies the impact of dzuds. Many herders are also acquiring more goats because they produce the most profitable fleece, however, goats rip out the roots when they graze, exacerbating land degradation even further.
Managing livestock numbers is a complex issue in Mongolia, but one the federal government must better address, and soon, if it is to protect the nation’s proud herding tradition, which provides a livelihood for almost a third of the population.
However, it cannot come at the expense of immediate support for the tens of thousands of herders living on the brink right now.
The economy is failing farmers
Making matters worse is Mongolia’s economic downturn, which has caused animal prices to plummet while hampering the government’s dzud preparations.
As a result, stockpiles of hay and fodder are smaller, there’s less money to buy fuel to heat schools and hospitals, less machinery to clear roads, less medicines for hospitals and less help for the poor.
In some schools it’s so cold children can see their own breath. It’s hard to imagine trying to learn in conditions like this.
What we’re doing in Mongolia
We are on the ground helping those worst affected.
Like last year, our relief operation will include providing fodder and veterinary packages to keep animals alive, catch up classes for herder children who miss too much school, heating in classrooms and emergency cash distributions so families can buy warm clothing and other basic essentials.
But far more help is needed to protect the lives and livelihoods of Mongolia’s nomadic herders, who are being pushed to their very limits in the harshest of climates. With the dying season fast approaching, now is the time for action.
Names have been changed to protect identities.