Learning to cope with disaster

Thai WSPA 0fficial helps Mongolian harders take steps to protect their livestock

After a natural disaster wiped out most of his herd in 2010, N Odkhvu had no choice but abandon his decadeslong livelihood and become a construction worker.

"If possible, I wish I can become a herder once more," he said longingly.

Nomadic pastoralists account for onethird of Mongolia's population. Odkhvu, 50, used to rank among them, raising his freely roaming animals on a vast and open expanse of grassland. The income was good enough for him and his wife to send their daughter to a university. 

But that was before a "dzud" hit in 2010. 

A dzud is a natural phenomenon arising from a summer drought, which brings snow blizzards combined with arctic cold resulting in insufficient grazing pastures, which often leads to the starvation and death of livestock on a massive scale. 

After a dzud ravaged Mongolia in 2010, Odkhvu had just 50 heads left. He sold them all later to repay his family's debts, which largely stemmed from their decision to stock animal feed ahead of the imminent dzud. 

Without animals, Odkhvu headed to Erdendalay town to work as a construction worker. His wife became a tailor and their daughter dropped out of school. 

"This is not just me, everyone in this area is suffering the same," he said. 

The 2010 dzud slaughtered about 15 million animals in Mongolia and their owners faced devastating consequences.

According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), livestock represent about 70 per cent of nomadic herders' assets. The psychological impact on herders has been huge with some resorting to suicide. 

"Mongolian herders' lives depend very much on the animals they have raised. They won't leave a place if their animals can't go with them," said Supaporn Last, director of WSPA Thailand. 

In March 2010, the WSPA and the Cambridge Mongolian Development Appeal (Camda) tried to help the herders by providing 130 tonnes of concentrated fodder, 20 tonnes of smashed wheat and veterinary drugs and multivitamins for free. 

A team from the WSPA, accompanied by reporters, recently checked on the Mongolian herders current and former to see how they had fared three years after the serious natural disaster. 

Ts ErdeneOchir, 61, remembered that several organisations offered assistance during the critical times. 

Yet, despite the help, nearly half of his 700 animals died in 2010. 

With a few hundred animals left, he still had enough assets to keep going as a herder. 

"In three years, my herd is now even bigger than in 2010," he said. 

Yo Batnasan, 32, said his herd escaped the 2010 dzud in time because his family decided to move north. 

"I called a friend and got advice," he said. 

Mongolian herders have usually large vehicles and ger, so they can move around. 

"But just three out of 30 herder households we have interviewed could contact their friends living elsewhere by phone to check whether the situation in other areas was fine," said Naritsorn Pholperm, a veterinary officer for WSPA disaster operations Asia Pacific. 

Cellular coverage was neither that good nor that comprehensive. 

The dzud affected all the families it raged past. It was just that the extent of the impact was different on each family. 

The recent trip to the herders was also intended to gather information that would be used to improve the delivery of care. 

"We have to prepare for disasters that may recur," he said. 

Naritsorn said two of 30 interviewed herder families stayed put when the dzud struck. 

"They had made preparations for what was coming. They prepared shelters as well as food for their animals," he said. 

D Hayanhyrvaa, 57, said he has stables for his animals and believes they can withstand a cold spell. 

"I have food for them too," he said.

By the time the dzud ended in 2010, he found that his loss was very minor compared with others. 

Supaporn believes Mongolian herders still lack modern equipment and rely heavily on traditional skills. 

"They observe weather conditions with their naked eyes. They don't use satellite services," she said. 

She hopes to work with government agencies there to help the Mongolians deal better with natural disasters.

L Sujirjin, 52, said he lost 600 of 800 animals to the 2010 dzud. But thanks to his savings, his family can maintain their livelihood as a herder. 

"Keeping animals to pass through a dzud is not just my children's future but also Mongolia's future," his wife Saiutuya said. 

Aware of livestock's importance to Mongolians, the WSPA is trying to support herders there in saving their animals and protecting their livelihoods. 

The WSPA is also active in helping people engaged in livestock raising. Next month, it will sign an agreement with several Thai organisations including the Livestock Development Department and the Veterinary Practitioner Association of Thailand to draw up a disaster response plan for the rescue of animals and their owners. 

The parties will meet twice a year."

The WPSA pointed out that when the big flood hit Thailand in 2011, efforts by various organisations were made but they were not well coordinated. 

"With integration, help will become timelier and more resource efficient," Supaporn said. 

During the past five years, the WSPA has trained 300 veterinarians in Thailand and recruited them into the Vet Volunteer Network. 

"When a disaster strikes and animals are affected, these vets will be ready to respond," she added.

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