Former herders resort to dangerous illegal mining to earn a living

Publié: 22 janvier 2016 8:16 CET

By Hler Gudjonsson IFRC

In the illegal mining pits of Nalaikh, district miners without safety equipment use primitive methods to mine low-grade coal, often more than a hundred meters underground. The Mongolian Red Cross Society has made efforts to improve the safety of the workers, but the lack of resources makes significant progress very difficult.

“Every year 10 to 15 people die, and many more are seriously injured from accidents in the mines,” said Mr. N Altangerel, a miner in his forties who has been working in one of the 2000 mostly illegal mining pits in the district for the last five years. Dozens of children from destitute families also work in the area, either collecting low-grade coal on the ground or helping family members who are labouring in the pits.

The Nalaikh mines are located only 35 kilometres away from Ulaan Baatar, the country’s capital. They serve the seasonal need for heating fuel in the rapidly growing slum districts that are home to two thirds of the city’s population. The inhabitants of these districts mostly still live in traditional herder dwellings (gers), and the illegal mines provide them with access to affordable heating fuel which is essential for their survival in Mongolia’s severe winter conditions.

A large part of the people living in the slums of Ulaan Baatar are former herders who were forced to migrate from the grasslands after losing their livestock to severe winter conditions. Most of them have no professional skills other than animal husbandry and struggle to earn a living in a new and unfamiliar environment.

Because of the high risk of accidents in the pits, the Red Cross has organized first aid and safety awareness training courses for the miners. “These mines are among the most dangerous work places in Mongolia,” said Mrs Tsogzolmaa Batdelger, instructor at the Nalaikh Red Cross branch. “We are doing what we can to make the workers more aware of the risks, help them to prevent accidents and teach first aid. They are very interested in learning, but the branch does not have the resources to provide all the training that is needed.”

Meanwhile there is an urgent need for increased intervention. Miners continue to suffer unacceptably high rates of injuries such as broken bones, cuts and serious head injuries, many of these resulting from improper use of mining equipment.

The end of 2015 marked the beginning of another severe winter on the Mongolian grasslands, threatening the livelihood of thousands of vulnerable herder households. The Red Cross is expecting severe winter conditions (dzud) similar to the one in 2010 when millions of animals perished due to the freezing temperatures and the lack of grazing land.

The current dzud in Mongolia is expected to affect more than 965,000 people, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has already released 158,459 Swiss Francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to assist 1,500 of the most vulnerable herder families to cope with the severe winter conditions. The targeted families will mainly be assisted with essential food items and cash grants.