Serious drought in Mongolia causes difficulties for herders

Published: 10 September 2002 0:00 CET

Marjut Helminen in Mongolia

The torrential rainfalls and floods seen in central and eastern Europe and many parts of Asia could not be further removed from the situation that Mongolia has faced this summer.

As much as 70 per cent of the country is suffering from drought with temperatures reaching up to 60 degrees Celcius. This has in turn has affected hay and crop production and caused around 110 serious forest fires, which not only destroy trees but also the grass growing beneath them.

Rivers and wells have dried up while the larger rivers are running about one third of their normal capacity. Herders are having to take their animals up to 20 kilometres each day to find water. Stomach complaints due to contaminated water supplies are also increasing among the herders.

This is the third consecutive year that Mongolia has faced extreme weather conditions. This year's drought may be followed by a very harsh winter, known in Mongolia as a dzud, because it has usually been a reliable warning sign for extreme winter conditions.

Meteorologists in Mongolia are at a loss to say why the past three summers have been exceptionally hot and dry, or why the dzuds have occurred in consecutive years rather than the usual every 6 - 12 years. Natural disasters, such as droughts, severe winters and extreme temperatures, have all started to occur more frequently in the last 30 years.

"Mongolia is located in a very sensitive area. The great Siberian Taiga forest, the Central Asian steppes, the high Altai mountains and the Gobi desert all converge here. The changes in climate can cause shifts of geo-climate zones," says Dr. D. Azza, Director of Mongolia's Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. "During the last 40 years, Mongolia's eco-system has altered as a result of climate change and human activities. Mongolians will have to cope with and adjust to these changes."

All these climatic developments are hampering efforts by the Mongolian government to implement a poverty eradication programme and overcome the inherent difficulties in the transition to a market economy. The cumulative effects of dzuds and droughts over successive years have led to the death of 6 million livestock, a meat and fuel deficit, increased meat prices, loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of herders and the rapid depopulation of people from rural areas as they migrate to urban centres, including the capital, Ulan Bator.

The Mongolian Red Cross is being stretched in its ability to help the herders affected by years of disasters and the approaching winter will mean the numbers of people struggling to survive and needing assistance, will increase.

The poor grass growth because of the drought means that animals cannot put on enough fat for the coming winter. Even when they are put on sale, the meat price increases have put them beyond the reach of many people. Many herders have already started migrating north in search of better grazing, but authorities there are saying that there isn't enough fodder for animals from other parts of country. The over-grazing which is threatening to turn the area into a desert and a plague of grasshoppers and field mice, have compounded the problem.

Trying to apply the lessons learned from previous years and together with the International Federation, the Mongolian Red Cross is helping herders prepare for the coming hard winter. Radios have been distributed so herders can follow weather forecasts and emergency information. Nearly 4,500 herders and their families are also receiving winter clothes, boots and food supplies this month to see them through the worst of the winter.

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