Mongolias harsh winter of discontent

SERGELEN, Mongolia — After enduring a harsh winter last year that killed almost half of her 1,000 head of livestock, Baatariin Erdenechimeg moved halfway across Mongolia in search of a new start.

But this winter has been no better -- her family has lost a third of its remaining animals and may lose more before the warmer weather returns.

"Our animals could not survive that kind of cold," said Erdenechimeg, a 42-year-old mother of two.

"They collapsed in the snow and died overnight. Our remaining animals are just skin and bones."

Erdenechimeg, one of hundreds of thousands of Mongolians who lead nomadic lives and depend entirely on livestock for a living, is grappling with the country's second straight dzud -- a severe winter after a dry summer.

The rare double-barreled weather phenomenon -- one of the worst on record in Mongolia -- often leads to food shortages for the livestock that generations in the landlocked, impoverished Asian nation have depended upon for survival.

More than 3.5 million animals -- cows, sheep, goats, yaks, horses and camels -- have died so far, with 60 percent of the country still buried under deep snow.

The frozen carcasses of these animals now lie scattered across the Mongolian steppes, their twisted bodies half buried in the snow drifts.

January was the worst, with the mercury frozen at -40 degrees Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit) for three straight weeks, Erdenechimeg said.

To keep their herd alive, she corralled the animals into tight pens while her husband Batdorj trudged into the darkness and blowing snow to look for strays.

Their eight horses quickly succumbed, along with scores of sheep and cashmere goats. The lambs only survived because Erdenechimeg kept dozens of them inside the family ger, the circular felt tent-home used by nomads.

More of her animals will die before winter is out because she simply has nothing to feed them. The lifeless and frozen ground will not see green shoots for another six weeks at the earliest.

"We?ve just had a string of bad luck. Last year we lost a lot of animals so we moved to new pastures. But the dzud has followed us," she said.

The last major dzud to hit Mongolia occurred over three straight winters from 2000 to 2002, with about 2.5 million animals dying each year.

Tens of thousands of herders who lost everything moved to the capital Ulan Bator in search of work. Most of them were unsuccessful and unemployment in the country runs at more than 30 percent.

This year's dzud has been even more deadly, and officials predict that some five million animals could die before summer.

Herders with 200 animals or less have been hardest hit. Inexperienced and ill-prepared for the harsh winter conditions, many have lost 50 to 60 percent of their livestock.

"The big herders have managed, but small-scale herders are not equipped to deal with a dzud as powerful as this one," said Akbar Usmani, the country representative for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Mongolia.

"They need to be weaned away from herding into some other line of business."

The UN estimates that 15 million dollars in emergency aid to herders is needed as they try to survive the winter and save their animals.

Two convoys carrying fodder for animals, plus blankets, clothing and flour have left Ulan Bator.

Emergency teams have also been dispatched to rural areas to help pregnant women reach hospitals. But in the west of the country, hundreds of households remain inaccessible due to the deep snows and blocked roads.

"Mongolia is about the size of Alaska with a population of 2.7 million. So reaching out to some of these herders is a challenge in any circumstances," said Usmani.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated last month that total economic losses stemming from the dzud had already exceeded 60 million dollars.

Nine human deaths have so far been reported -- mainly herders who got lost in whiteouts while searching for wayward animals.

UN field workers report many cases of psychological trauma as herders try to cope with the loss of their livelihoods and the sight of dead animals piling up near their homes.

"When we came to their homes, they would just start crying. They were in shock at seeing their beloved animals freeze and starve to death," said Ulaanbayariin Tungalag, a UN worker who visited hard-hit Dundgobi province.

When the snows begin to melt, the UNDP and the country's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) will launch a 1.8-million-dollar carcass-clearing project aimed at preventing the onset of disease caused by decomposing animals.

The UN is hoping to recruit some 20,000 herding families to the project. Each participating family will receive 60 dollars to bury their dead animals. The remaining 600,000 dollars will be used to buy shovels and other equipment.

For Erdenechimeg, the money can?t come soon enough.

"We need cash for basic staples like flour, rice and tea," she says. "We have fewer animals to sell this summer so every little bit helps."

Source:Michael Kohn for AFP news service
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