Disaster looms for nomadic herders in Mongolia

Published: 23 February 2016 11:27 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

On the vast Mongolian grasslands, livestock are dying in the thousands due to an ever worsening winter ‘Dzud’. Extreme temperatures, snow storms and heavy snowfall, and in many areas a thick layer of ice are preventing livestock from grazing efficiently. These current conditions have been compounded by the effects of last summer’s drought which has left pastures in a very bad condition. Millions of animals are likely to die from starvation in the coming weeks and months, depriving vulnerable herder families of their only livelihood.

“The situation is becoming truly alarming, and Red Cross is planning to launch an emergency appeal this month to attract international support so that we can help the most vulnerable herders,” says Madame Nordov Bolormaa, Secretary General of the Mongolian Red Cross Society. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)  has already released funds from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF)  and is now preparing the distribution of food parcels and cash to more than 1,500 vulnerable herder families. The planned emergency appeal will be targeting several thousand households.

“The temperatures have dropped to -55 degrees and some of our animals froze to death where they stood,” recounted Oyanbat, an elderly herder in Teshig Soum, Bulgan Province when he was visited by a Red Cross assessment team.  He still owns 20 animals but that is all he has to support himself and his sister. If he loses what is left of his livestock he will have no livelihood at all. Finally the elderly siblings may have no choice but to abandon their home on the grasslands in order to survive.

The prospect of losing all his animals and being forced to leave is truly daunting for Oyanbat, who has not visited his own district centre for 10 years, even if it is only 30 km away. He pointed towards his sister who is physically and mentally disabled and in need of constant care.

“I cannot leave her alone in the house except for a few hours at the time, which makes it difficult for me even to take proper care of the animals, not to speak of going to the district centre,” he said.

“One of the biggest problems is the extremely low market prices for any animal products,” said Madame Bolormaa. “This is because many families with small herds are forced to sell their animals for next to nothing, either because they desperately need cash to buy vital necessities, or because they know that their animals will die in the Dzud”.

As so many other poor herders facing this terrifying dilemma, Oyanbat has no other choice but to wait for spring and hope that a part of his little herd will survive and that he will still have a livelihood in the summer. “Without our animals we have no life on the grasslands,” he said as he reflected on his impossible situation. He is grateful for the food that the Red Cross team gave him, but realizes all too well that it is no substitute for a steady income.

While food and cash will ensure the immediate survival of the most affected herders, thousands of families are expected to lose their livelihood in this year’s Dzud. Some will be able to get a job herding other people’s animals for a minimum salary, but others will have to rebuild their lives from scratch, which usually means moving to the so-called “Ger districts.” These are big slums in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and other urban centres where people still live in traditional herder tents, mostly in extreme poverty.  

“For former herders who have no professional skills it is very hard to earn a living in the city, and without assistance many families will be doomed to extreme poverty,” said IFRC Programme Manager Dr Enkhjin Garid. “This is why vocational training and small business development are such an important part of our emergency appeal. It is not enough just to keep people alive for a few months, we also need to ensure that the herders have a secure livelihood in the future.”