Extreme winter conditions threaten Mongolian herders

Published: 2 December 2015 9:04 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Hundreds of thousands of nomadic herder families who live on the vast grasslands of Mongolia are under threat with the onset of severe winter weather, or what is called ‘Dzud’ in Mongolian language. Dzud is heralded by a dry summer resulting in a poor harvest of hay for winter feed. In many places temperatures have dropped below -30C and pasture land is being covered with up to 45 cm of snow. In the worst affected areas half-starving herds of livestock are already struggling to cope with the cold weather.

“The Red Cross is deeply concerned about the situation, and we are now preparing for the possibility that we may need to launch a large emergency operation,” said Ms. Nordov Bolormaa, Secretary General of the Mongolian Red Cross Society after a long contingency planning meeting with her disaster management staff.

The Mongolian National State Emergency Committee has warned that over the coming weeks there is strong likelihood of a ‘Dzud’ disaster similar to that witnessed in the winter of 2009 – 2010 when snowstorms and extreme cold killed millions of animals, depriving poor herder families in the worst affected areas of their only source of income. Tens of thousands of households lost all or more than half of their animals and many were forced to move to slum areas on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar and other urban centres. Large scale migration to the cities exacerbates social problems such as unemployment, alcoholism and extreme poverty.

At the end of November the Mongolian Information and Research Institute of Meteorology and Environment forecast that extreme winter conditions will affect 40% of the country in the coming weeks. In the period from mid-December to mid-January temperatures are expected to remain far below what is normal for this season and snowfall is likely to be much more than in an average winter.

“Herders are much worse off this winter than they were in 2009,” says Dr. Davaajargal Baasansuren, Health Promotion Programme Officer at the Mongolian Red Cross. “Livestock prices are lower than they have been for the past five years, which means that people will not be able to buy food and fuel. They will also not be able to afford feed for their animals and won’t be able to save them without help.”

Local governments in the affected areas are now doubling their winter preparedness efforts. They have called for increased support to prepare for what may become the most serious Dzud disaster in many years. 80% of all provinces in the country are considered to be inadequately prepared for even a normal winter, underlining the importance of taking immediate measures to save livestock in the areas that are most at risk.

“It is not easy to reach the herders and provide them with the support they need,” says Dr. Enkhjin Garid, IFRC National Programme Coordinator in Mongolia. “They live scattered over an enormous area, and their nomadic lifestyle can make them very difficult to locate. If the winter turns out to be as serious as long term weather forecasts predict, we are going to need the combined efforts of both domestic and international humanitarian actors to be able to provide the necessary support to these families. “

Presently Uvs province is the most affected part of the country, and 218 families with 110 children are reported to be migrating within the province in search of better pastures for their livestock. 810 families live in the most remote part of the province that has now become unreachable because of heavy snow. Of particular concern is the increasing density of the snow cover, as it makes the animals unable to scratch through it to get to the grass below.

“Many families are already facing serious difficulties, and the situation is expected to become much worse in the coming weeks,” said Ms. Bolormaa. “We will continue to monitor the situation and it is important that all humanitarian actors follow the development closely and do what they can to avert the crisis that this winter threatens to bring to the herders of Mongolia.”