Mother Rock – sadly no match for Mother Nature in Mongolia

Published: 9 November 2010 0:00 CET

People from across Mongolia travel to the monument of Eej Khad, or Mother Rock, to ask for their wishes to come true. They bring offerings of biscuits, milk and rice, as well as traditional drinks to splash at her feet, before walking three-times clockwise around her temple whispering their dreams into her ears.

Some ask for wealth or love or a bright future for their children. Others, mostly the nomadic herdsmen, only ask for two things: a bountiful harvest and a benevolent winter.

Unfortunately, this year Mother Rock could do little to protect them as Mother Nature battered the country with one of the harshest winters for a generation, destroying crops, killing off herds – literally decimating the herdsmen’s livelihoods.

The dzud, as it’s called in Mongolian, is the name used to describe the climatic conditions of an extremely dry summer that transitions to severe winter conditions with devastating low temperatures, heavy snow and harsh winds. When Mongolia experienced the dzud earlier this year, it resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million livestock and shattered the livelihoods of thousands.

Emotional trauma

And it’s not just the loss of lives and the loss of livelihood that has an effect – there is a deeper emotional trauma exacted on those who are traditionally some of the heartiest and most resilient people in the world.

Surviving outdoors in some of the coldest temperatures experienced anywhere on earth – this year recorded at -50 or below – can do that to you. Watching your animals die when they are all you know, only adds to the despair. And harbouring feelings that you have failed your ancestors, and have lost a part of your history, can bring even the strongest and most rugged herdsman to tears.

Mr Dashdondog, a traditional nomadic herdsman, is one of those survivors. At 66 years old, he wears the age of his lifestyle.

“This is certainly the coldest and most severe winter of my lifetime,” he says, as a lone, newborn calf stands tied to a pole on the hill behind him. “Alone,” he says, looking at the calf, “because the others have died.”

Of the 200 livestock owned by his family, only 10 have survived. Clearly a strong and hard-working man, he struggles to hold back his tears as he describes the animal pens blocked by the snow, and how he had to brave the stinging harsh winds whipping in from the south when he tried to dig them out.

That was another thing. The winds usually come from the north, so animal pens are designed to offer protection from that direction. The southerly winds caught him – and everyone else – by surprise. There was little that they could do as their animals perished. For those animals that did survive, there was little food left for them to eat. What little there was, was buried under deep snow.

With his animals gone, and no way left to earn an income, it was organizations like the Red Cross that helped him survive, providing food and warm clothes for his family – giving them the strength to continue.

Filling a critical gap

Another survivor, Ms Dulam, describes a similar scenario. Now 72, she lost 600 animals and has only 20 livestock left. Although clearly pained by the experience, she takes a more optimistic view.

“It was nature’s way,” she says, “I have no choice but to be optimistic. It’s either that, or we’ll die.”

The Red Cross supplies of food and warm clothes have filled a critical gap when it was needed most, and there are few agencies with the national reach and grassroots presence to find these vulnerable families when they were at their most vulnerable.

Some 1,800 families have been assisted with food and relief supplies, and crucial disaster preparedness stocks are being replenished for the winter ahead.

But as Ms Dashka, a programme director from the Mongolian Red Cross, explains: “It’s not just a matter of making money and food available to distribute. It’s also the immense challenge of dealing with the intense weather conditions, the vast distances with few roads between the townships and, of course, the fact that people are on the move – changing destination based on the elements.”

Few countries in the world suffer the harsh living conditions of the Mongolian plains, and only a few organizations like the Red Cross have the ability to reach the vulnerable people who live there.