Displaced Mongolian herders destined for a life of deprivation in urban slums

Publicado: 6 abril 2016 10:31 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC

Thousands of Mongolian herder families are at risk of losing their livelihoods this winter due to a combination of summer drought and extreme winter conditions. More than 360,000 animals have already died in Mongolia this winter, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an emergency appeal to support the Mongolian Red Cross Society in providing assistance to those who have been worst hit.  

Many impoverished herder families are being forced to migrate to urban slums. “Herding animals is the only way to make a living on the grassland,” said 22-year-old Naranchimeg, who moved with her family from Hovd province to Ulaan Baatar in 2013. “We used to have 300 cattle and 100 sheep, but lost them during the dzud in 2010. We finally managed to move to the city, but we are still struggling to even feed ourselves,” she said.

Mongolian slums are commonly known as ger districts after the tent-like traditional Mongolian herder dwellings that are still used by many of the inhabitants.  Naranchimeg and her family live together in one little ger, which has been erected on a steep hillside with a view of the sprawling slums. Here there are no public services or infrastructure such as sewage systems or roads. Like thousands of other newly arrived herders, they frequently need to move their ger from place to place as they do not own a plot of land where they can settle permanently.

“I wish I could return to the grasslands in Hovd province, but we don’t have the money to buy new livestock,” she said. “Here in Ulaan Baatar it is almost impossible for us to get any proper jobs because we have no skills except for herding animals, and that will not help us.” Most of the day she stays at home alone with her sister’s little baby while other family members are out looking for work.

“There are days when we have nothing to eat, even two or three days. That makes me feel really desperate, and on such days I can only think about how to find work so I can buy some food,” she said.

But is not only the extreme poverty in the city that makes her long for the idyllic traditional herder lifestyle. “I really loved being with the animals, milking the goats and the cows and having the endless grassland and blue sky around me,” she said, “But really what I miss most of all is the clean air.”

Winter temperatures in Ulaan Baatar are between -30°C and -40°C, and destitute slum dwellers are forced to burn anything from old tires to plastics to keep warm. Out of thousands of small chimneys rise pillars of dark, poisonous smoke which has become the source of many health problems.

Her neighbour, Mrs. Dolgor Bolormaa, also misses the clean air in the grasslands. The 43-year-old grandmother from Hintii province lives together with nine of her children and grandchildren. “We lost all of our animals in the dzud in 2001, and for a long time after that we lived in Bayanzurkh district centre in our province, hoping we would be able to start herding again,” she explained. “But it was impossible, and finally in 2013 when we had enough money to transport our ger we moved to Ulaan Baatar.”

In the beginning, the family survived on food sent by relatives in Hintii province, and despite the many years of poverty they have had to endure, Mrs Bolormaa considers herself among the lucky ones. “Now my son has a job, so there is at least someone in the family who has an income.”

“Few herders have any occupational skills that they can use in an urban context, and many of them are doomed to a life of extreme deprivation in very unhealthy living conditions,” said Davaajargal Baasansuren, Head of the Mongolian Red Cross Society Disaster Management Programme. In order to provide new livelihood opportunities for herders displaced by this year’s dzud, the Red Cross will provide vocational training and small business grants to suitable beneficiaries as a follow-up to its emergency relief. 

IFRC Mongolia appeal