Dzud: a slow natural disaster kills livestock --and livelihoods-- in Mongolia


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Mongolia is currently experiencing a white "dzud" – a multiple natural disaster consisting of a summer drought resulting in inadequate pasture and production of hay, followed by very heavy winter snow, winds and lower-than-normal temperatures. Dzuds occur when the winter conditions – particularity heavy snow cover – prevent livestock from accessing pasture or from receiving adequate hay and fodder. 

Since early January, there has been heavy and continuous snowfall, blizzards and a sharp fall in daily temperatures – dropping below minus 40 degrees Celsius – in 19 out of Mongolia’s 21 aimags (provinces).

This disaster has already caused the loss of approximately three percent of the country’s roughly 44 million livestock and many more losses are expected, given the feeble condition of many animals. Around 35 percent of Mongolia's work force is dependent on herding for a substantial part of their livelihoods and about 63 percent of rural household's assets are livestock; livestock herding accounts for about a third of employment in Mongolia. Food security is also worsening, poverty levels are likely to rise and these factors may cause an increase in rural-to-urban migration. Compounding the problem is the poor condition of many pastures as a result of last year’s drought and overgrazing. In addition heavy snowfall started earlier than usual in October 2009.

Some herders have lost 50-70 percent of their livestock. While they are monitoring the situation closely, the emergency commission is yet to declare the situation a national disaster, because it appears that the losses so far are localized. Some areas are so thickly covered with snow that they are inaccessible by all types of vehicles, while other areas appear to be less affected and remain accessible.  If severe cold weather persists and there is more heavy snowfall, this situation could very well become a national disaster.

On January 23-25 our country office team of Erdene Ochir, Natalie Young, Clare Price and I joined the Minister of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, Mr Badamjunai, on a visit to areas affected by the dzud. We visited two of the hardest hit provinces in central west Mongolia, Arkhangai and Uvurkhangai – which have suffered 24 and 14 percent respectively of the national livestock losses.

Traveling was difficult and our vehicles got stuck in the snow several times. Halfway, we had to leave our vehicle behind and join the Minister's convoy as our car could not make it through the heavy snow.  Standing outside in these temperatures even for 10 minutes makes the body numb. It’s hard to feel your hands and toes. This makes us all wonder how the herders and their families cope when they are out herding – every day.

We spent time with herder families and local government officials in both provinces.  Herders were trying to cope with the dire situation in different ways. Some families had decided to make one of their "gers" (the traditional round felt dwelling of central Eurasia's nomads also called a "yurt") into an animal shelter and huddle together in the other. Some were trying to burn dung to keep the shelter warm – with little effect. Some were in a state of shock.  One woman almost broke down, saying she didn't know what she would do if the family's one remaining milk cow died.

Seven casualties have been reported as a result of the bad weather and two herders froze to death looking for their animals.

In the worst-affected areas, carcasses lay strewn around. In shelters, sheep are stuck together from the previous night, trying to rush out of the pen in hunger perhaps and even some horses have fallen. One family was very worried about the possibility of their only remaining horse dying; without their horse – still the main form of transportation for many rural families – how would they be able to get basic necessities?

So far, the government's response at the national level has been swift. At the county and village levels, however, the response is complicated by the dispersed rural population, large distances and because some villages are completely cut off from county centers by snow. Getting medical supplies, fodder, hay and basic foodstuffs to the herders are the immediate challenges.  Emerging shortages of fuel, fodder, hay and transportation vehicles are likely to worsen the situation. Providing medical services, particularly to pregnant women and children, is a continuing challenge.

During spring, safely disposing of carcasses and preventing outbreaks of disease will take center stage.

The emerging disaster highlights the medium-term need to put in place a more sustainable pasture and livestock management system. This is the focus of ongoing assistance from the World Bank and other external partners.

The World Bank is now trying to identify and mobilize resources to help the Government of Mongolia address the emerging disaster. We have met partners, including the United Nations. From the Bank side, we are taking immediate action:

  • exploring opportunities to tap into the World Bank's global disaster response fund;
  • working within the Bank-financed Sustainable Livelihoods Program to provide support under the pasture risk management and community initiatives funds, components of the project; and
  • using the Index Based Livestock Insurance project which covers some 5,600 herders in the country, including in affected areas, to provide some relief to those insured.

Our teams are also working closely with key decision makers and counterparts over the next weeks and months. The aim is to support an appropriate response to short-term needs and continue to deepen medium-term initiatives that reduce herder vulnerability. This can be achieved by improving pasture management and winter preparedness, the transfer and mitigation of risks from a dzud and strengthening the post-disaster response system.

Today, Mongolian herders, who wear boots with upturned toes so as not to damage the land, face the extreme forces of the very nature they have traditionally worshipped. How much of this is Mother Nature and how much is a result of the continuing environmental degradation caused by man? Mongolian elders are saying this is not a dzud of nature, but a dzud of our carelessness and neglect of nature.

But looking to the future, other questions come to mind:

  • Can fragile ecosystems like those in Mongolia continue to bear the burden of an ever increasing livestock herd that continues to deplete pastures and threaten long run sustainability?
  • What is the balance between allowing a traditional culture to flourish yet ensuring that modern requirements –such as good quality, access to markets, and access to health and services– are provided in good measure to all, including the far flung herder?

Your take?


Diego Grajales
February 08, 2010

Mongolia should focus on taking action fast on this issue by providing self-sustaining feeding and reproduction center for their livestock.

The question: How do we do it? Alternative energy has part of the solution in this matter.

Thanks Diego

Jaspal Sandhu
February 08, 2010

A colleague of mine from the World Bank in DC just forwarded me the link to this post so I'm coming late to the conversation. From 2006-2008, I conducted health services research in rural Mongolia, including spending several months in the Mongolian countryside at soum hospitals and at the homes of bag feldshers (bagiin emch). What I found most surprising in my work was how important it was to understand herding issues in order to work on problems of rural health services.

For those not familiar with Mongolia, herders suffered through an unprecedented three zud (dzud) in three consecutive years, from 1999-2002. In addition to zud, drought and sandstorms both have significant negative impacts on herders. These events are highly interrelated and indications are that the frequency of these events is increasing. Echoing Arshad, yes, climate change does play a role in disasters such as this current zud.

The vulnerability of herders is acutely connected to human activities - activities of individuals, communities, government institutions, and the private sector. Andrei Marin states that "the impact of these shocks cannot be attributed to bad weather alone", poverty and changes to government assistance also play a major role (A. Marin, Global Environmental Change 2009). Because of the profitability of cashmere, the Mongolian goat population has grown to four times the population during pre-1990 period; as a result Mongolia is now the world's second biggest producer of raw cashmere, representing the 15-20% of the world total. This rapid increase is contributing to land degradation, which in turn creates dangerous underlying conditions for herders and their animals.

In response to your questions, what is needed is a set of multiple, *concurrent* strategies to mitigate risk to herders in the medium-term. Why the emphasis on concurrent approaches? (1) As Zach suggests, it is important to provide herders with choices. Concurrent approaches are one path to cultural preservation. (2) There will not be a single, "silver bullet" approach, so concurrent approaches are likely to be more effective.

Strategies like the Index Based Livestock Insurance project may be highly effective for mitigating risk, but more needs to be done. From my work in the rural health sector, it became quickly apparent that some of the best improvements can come from leveraging knowledge already embedded within the culture (see Positive Deviance approaches). There is a potential for improved forecasting and early warning systems, especially as mobile phone networks are finally extending beyond soum centers. I am not suggesting the answers, simply saying that more innovative, evidence-based, complementary strategies need to be employed.

I'm glad that the World Bank is thinking not only about an immediate response, but also about approaches to reduce herder vulnerability to natural disasters. Thanks for presenting these issues in this format and for presenting translated text in Mongolian. If there is a way for the comments to show up on both Mongolian and English versions (even if not translated), I would recommend it.

Би энэ блог дээр манай бодол Монголоор бичээүй. Та асуулттай байвал, надруу коммент бичээрэй. -Жаспаал

February 01, 2010

This novel approach to sharing knowledge and experiences is much appreciated! Thanks for the breath of fresh air!

February 03, 2010

Thanks for sharing this video. Wonder if this is also related to climate change? Seems world over similar drastic changes in climate are causing natural disasters to humans and animals.

February 03, 2010

I spent three months researching rural to urban migration in Mongolia a few summers ago, and learned how important and challenging it is for the country to maintain a viable herding sector that not only preserves Mongolian culture but offers a livelihood to many struggling families. Though much of what I learned made me critical of the World Bank's policies in the 90's, the questions you ask now seem telling of a different perspective at the Bank - one less ideologically market driven and more pragmatic.

To answer your first question: No. The economic significance of the cashmere industry will continue to support the influx of goats, which cause most of the damage to the grazing land. Unless a new and less environmentally destructive industry emerges, I don't see this problem going away. A government tax or restriction on cashmere production might mitigate the problem, but would likely involve a higher price for cashmere. This may mean we would all need to start paying more for our cashmere scarfs - a risky proposition, but one that should be explored further.

To answer your second question: This is a difficult question. With the perplexing issue of providing modern amenities versus respecting traditional culture, I think providing choices and options always seems to be the best option.

As part of my research, I spent a week living with a herding family that was considering a move to Ulaan Bataar. (Many herding families are considering or already have moved to UB, which makes up for 60% of the population, with many living in the slum like ger districts.) Research from the Asia Development Bank found that families are moving to the City for two primary reasons: (1) as a survival economic strategy and (2) so that their children can receive an education.

In my opinion, the priority of the Mongolian government and the World Bank should be to provide the opportunity for herders to meet these two basic criteria. Herding must be made sustainable and innovative methods must be explored and introduced so that the industry is dzud proof. Furthermore, children in the countryside must have the opportunity to receive a modern education.

Mongolia is an incredible place and I applaud the World Bank for shedding light on the difficult challenges that the country faces.

February 07, 2010

The World Bank team in Mongolia which is pushing a mining based economic development policy in this fragile ecosystem does not mention in the above article the impact of mining at all. There are several dozen of settlements (soums) in this country where 50-89% of land, including land under homes, range and hay are licensed for mineral exploration and mining. Mining companies are pushing out herder households regardless of customery law under which they have lived for centuries offering a maximum of $5.000 to relocate them to already crowded rangeland. Those who have not been offered relocation means live right next to mines under coal and desert dust, which make huamn and animal existence impossible.
As close as 70km from capital city a uranium exploration project is in its second stage. 170km from the capital city a coal exploration is reported to have completed ots 1st stage successfuuly with promissinf results. 100km from Lake Huvsgul- major fresh water resourse of Asia- license to mine phosphorus is being issued.
The economic development policy that is being recommended by WB and donors does take into account the right of the people to life, security and decent living conditions, environmental and biodiversity concerns.

Arshad Sayed
February 08, 2010

Appreciate your comments. We will do our best to make sure the work we do is more accessible and easier to share.

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010

This is a misinformed view so let me point out why.

The World Bank's Interim Strategy Note for 2009-2010, Report No. 483 1 1 -MN (available on the Bank's website) is clear in that the Banks strategy during this period will focus on supporting the Government's immediate crisis response and associated reforms with potential to improve medium-term management of the country's mineral-based economy by focusing on three strategic areas:

(1) Improve macro and fiscal sustainability in a mineral-based economy;

(2) protect the poor and vulnerable; and

(3) encourage transparent and prudent mining investments and a more competitive and stable medium-term business investment climate. WBG assistance in each strategic area will focus initially on short-term crisis response, but will shift toward medium-term policy and institutional reforms as economic conditions stabilize and planned policy and institutional reforms proceed.

In addition the Bank is supporting a mining sector institutional strengthening technical assistance project, report No. 43857, available on the web, whose key objectives are:

(i) strengthening the capacity to manage mining revenues and develop economic and sector policies, (ii) Improve regulatory capacity to manage mining sector development, (iii) develop the capacity for management of state equity, and (iv) project management.

I hope this sufficiently clarifies any misconceptions of the Bank's role in this sector.

Arshad Sayed
February 08, 2010

Yes, would be the response of my colleague, Tony Whitten, who has written earlier in his blog.

Tony Whitten's blog
" The 4th Assessment of the International Panel on Climate Change anticipates increased annual temperatures in Mongolia of some 2.5-5.0 degrees Celsius (on top of the nearly 2 degrees Celsius observed over the last 40 years) with increases occurring in both winter and summer. Precipitation increases in winter months are likely to be higher than any increases over the summer months and in some areas less summer rain is expected. The implications of these and other predicted changes were assessed last year by Jay Angerer, of Texas A&M University, who with colleagues published in the journal Rangelands on ‘Climate Change and Ecosystems of Asia with Emphasis on Inner Mongolia and Mongolia’. "

Andrei Marin
February 09, 2010

My first reaction was "Oh no, not again!". But it was also good to see the reality of the disaster (numbers of dead livestock mentioned in reports are hollow, abstract compared to this video...)

I have been doing PhD research on climate vulnerability and adaptation in the govi region in 2006/2007. What I can say is that herders do not conceive dzud as unavoidable. They have seen it before, some of them many times. What is disconcerting and puzzling is the frequency of these extreme events (droughts and dzuds) not allowing herds (and people) to recover.

This can be attributed to climate change (increased variability), as is the now rather obvious heating and drying of many parts of Mongolia. Yet, changes in rains seem to be very localised and herders try to avoid droughts and fatten animals by 'following the rains', migrating to where the grass (and water is). But, migration has become increasingly expensive and cumbersome (bureaucratic), especially out of one's sum or aymag.

In my opinion (and my informants'), the only way to deal with dzud is to winter far away from it, if one could foresee it, or more likely to have fat animals that can starve for a while while waiting for better days. Hay may be used as an emergency coping (like putting the animals in the ger), but not as a proper adaptation.
It takes at least 10 tons of hay for a herd of 150 animals (bog and bodmal) to survive 1 month without pasture. Is there any herder who affords (buying) this? And if they do, do they do it?

The government insists on the hay/fodder emergency reserve as the main adaptation against dzud, but time and again this does not seem to work. Even if the fodder would make it to the herds (by helicopter or trucks, etc.) it couldn't possibly save the majority if the dzud lasts. A local hay reserve may be more appropriate but it still may be a false friend- falsely reinsuring some herders. The solution again is to move freely, widely. Resources would be better used in my opinion if transportation would be subsidised during droughts, making sure herds reach the available pastures, get fat and meet the winter in their best physical shape.

Today people have to pay a lot of money for renting trucks and paying for fuel to move, in addition to often being charged for using pastures, wells, winter shelters in a different sum/aymag. Many herders take commercial loans to finance these movements, with 30-40% interest per year. The only way they can afford paying back is by selling cashmere. It's easy to understand why the number of goats has increased (incidentally herders are not very keen on goats). That being said, the discussion of goats being more damaging to the environment than other livestock is largely a received wisdom with virtually no research to back it up. Moreover, the whole discussion of 'too many animals' should also be nuanced. There are estimates of more than 40 million livestock in Mongolia in the olden days (Chinggis Khan's time). The research we have this far shows that at least in some places (govi/ desert-steppe) the number of animals has little bearing on the quality of the pasture, while in the khangay it may be more significant. We cannot blame the present tragedy on the careless herders who don't take care of the pastures. Let us just hope the bad weather stops soon and the spring arrives sooner this year, all we need is some warmth (where's the global warming when one needs it?) to turn all this snow into grass. Fingers crossed!

Claudia Gabarain
February 09, 2010

Thanks for your comment, Andrei. As an aside, you may be interested in checking out a post on the effects of goat grazing written some time ago by our biodiversity specialist, Tony Whitten. You can find it here:


Andrei Marin
February 10, 2010


I am aware of the blog and have been discussing the topic with Tony Whitten. The way I read Tony's input is that it is a concerned personal reflection rather than a scientifically docummented empirical fact. I assume we are both waiting for some evidence to shed some light on the role of goats in ecosystem dynamics and pasture resources. Until then all we can do is voice our personal views. Perhaps the Bank would like to fund an extensive comparative study to investigate the role of goat grazing pressure in different ecosystems in Mongolia?

February 10, 2010

Perhaps a combination in increasing/starting the production chain from raw cashmere to fashionable end products contributes to a higher income for the herders and an by the sector itself generated own system for quota's in size of flocks. The added value through "ownership" structures (price guarantees, insurance, agricultural and veterinary services, land management etc.)might contribute to a more sustainable herder culture?

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010

Zach, first apologies for tardiness in responding. We just had the Mongolia Economic Forum here in UB on Feb 8,9 where I was participating and reached UB on Sunday from a trip overseas. I too have visited several herding families and I share your assessment on why they chose to move to urban areas.

I do appreciate your words of support. We all continue to learn from the lessons of our past so that we can be more effective in the future. The Bank is no exception.

You might recall that there was an export ban on cashmere in place from 1991-1996 to protect local spinners. This ban was replaced in 1997 by a flat tax of 4,000 MNT per kg, that created extensive smuggling and corruption at the borders.

My friends in the rural sector have suggested that actions like: (a) having herder cooperatives, (b) introducing scientific practices in animal husbandry, (c)privatization of land or zoning of pastures, (d) access to finance (so that the herdsmen does not see the only source of income being extra animals, can be helpful in providing incentives to focus on quality of herd size and better managing of pastures.

Another promising pilot project that the government is testing is the weather based livestock insurance scheme. Such instruments have a dual advantage in that they protect the herder during a Dzud by supplanting the income that is needed if the animals die, and provide an incentive to focus on quality, and not worry too much about quantity.

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010


This is a good point and the country is abundant in solar and wind resources, which do need to be tapped. The start of this may be a project that is being put together by a local mongolian company as public private partnership, which might help pave the way in this area.

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010


Appreciate your very thoughtful comments. I concur with most of what you suggest.

And along those lines we might have to think what would incentivize herders to voluntarily reduce herd sizes over time. And there it may be worth looking at the entire value chain from from goat to coat.

Although you are right in pointing out that Cashmere indeed is becoming a mainstay for herders livelihoods (Mongolia is the second largest producer of raw cashmere after China) there is not much value added that is captured in Mongolia o that the benefits do not get captured both upstream and downsteam.

To put Monoglia's position relative to China in cashmere garment manufacturing sector into perspective, consider that while Mongolia is the second largest producer, Mongolia has less than 1% of the global market for cashmere garments in 2007 compared to China's 62% (source: Comtrade); China produces 5 times more raw cashmere than Mongolia but the value of its manufactured exports is 70 times that of Mongolia.

Therefore along the lines of what you have suggested we may need to look also at how to increase the productivity of meat and cashmere products so that more value is captured within Mongolia and therefore there is more focus on producing quality v/s quantity and the incentives shift througout the value chain towards more quality, valued added, and sustainable practices?

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010


Your comments are prescient and well informed and reflect your deep understanding of the situation here.

I fully agree with your observations and I too have yet to see any informed view based on data of why the goat is the 'villian' and what would be an "appropriate" herd size for a nation of this size.

You know that technically spring has arrived! It is tsagaan Tsaar, the lunar year begins this there is a thawing, todays temperature reading in my car in UB was a mere -31.

Arshad Sayed
February 10, 2010

Sorry I got to your post just now..but I echo your observation as you will see in my response earlier which is very much along what you suggest!

February 11, 2010

My 'knowledge' on goats is indeed received wisdom, but it has been received from people I respect with enormous and varied field experience. They too have noted the lack of an empirical basis and this debate has encouraged me to encourage someone I know who is writing a literature review on this subject to finish, and I am forwarding this blog and comments to others whom I know are intersted in the hope they will also contribute.

I would draw your attention to work done on the impacts of goats and other livestock in arid northern Kenya by Oba et al. in Land Degradation 14: 83-94, 2002 (…) which concludes as follows: ... understanding plant species responses to grazing pressure and seasonality needs to consider multiple scale effects and the dogmatic notions about degradation of the arid zone rangelands at the coarse scales should be reconsidered. Land degradation assessments in the arid zones should focus at the fine scale.

The importance of the fine scale is echoed by the fascinating paper by Andre Marin (above) on nomadic herders’ observations of climate change in Global Environmental Change 20: 162-176, 2010 (…). This describes the increasingly fine-grained 'patchiness' of precipitation. This is important because Mongolia's grasslands are mostly a non-equilibrium system, that is, they can change year by year depending on a host of factors and trying to attribute a single cause to a particular change is risky.

That said, politicians need general guidance and principles and the fine scale is anathema to policy. I will take this debate as a challenge to further our understanding so that we can provide well-supported advice to government.

Relevant to all this, later this year our NEMO2 project will include an analysis of data on pasture quality changes collected by MercyCorps under our Sustainable Livelihoods Project's livestock early warning system, and also determine a robust methodology that will allow the attribution of changes in pasture use to project-level interventions that seek to improve pasture management.

Dennis Sheehy
February 12, 2010

I hesitate to comment, knowing that I may sound overly critical and caustic, but will do so anyway. First, I have been working continuously in Mongolia as a consultant since January 1991. That does not make me an expert on the subject in any way, but it has allowed me to observe first hand the development of patterns and trends relative to the agricultural sector, including pastoral livestock production, pasture use, ecology and management, international and national development projects in the livestock and crop subsectors, development and market economy impacts on large herbivore wildlife, etc. Secondly, drought and dzud in Mongolia commonly occur about every 10 years in Mongolia. Given this factor, and given that the last drought/dzud occurred in 2000/02, given that everyone in Mongolia including the government, donars, and herders knew that pastures were deteriorating, given that animal stocking rates had reached historical highs (total numbers in 2009 were 10 million head higher than the beginning of the 2000/02 drought/dzud, given that the government has not been able to pass legislation relating to the new pasture law that was first presented during the 2000 land conference that would enable overstocking to be addressed, given the replacement of other kind of livestock that died during the 2000/02 drought/dzud with Cashmere goats primarily because of the cash income received directly by the herder and the fecundity of goats to quickly build numbers,and given the inability or unwillingness of herders to provide or purchase livestock feed as a normal production input during every winter, the reaction by the government and the donar institutions is surprising but not unexpected.

At this point in time, the government, especially NEMA, and national and international institutions should do all they can to assist herders and rural people to mitigate loss of human lives and livestock mortalities. But after the dzud, all involved should take the necessary steps to put in place the components of a sustainable pastoral livestock production system. Although not the only source of ideas to develop such a system, the "Livestock Sector Strategy" discussion paper prepared by the World Bank would be a good starting point. Lastly, the aftermath of the current dzud presents an opportunity that shouldn't be squandered. Unless meaningful changes are implemented now, there is a high probability that pastoral livestock production will be lost, and with it a primary component of the Mongolian national identity will be lost.

Arshad Sayed
February 13, 2010

Dennis, Your points are well taken. And much along the lines the team here is responding. Andrew Goodland, Erdene, and our rural development team are busy engaging with policy makers, on the medium term issues that need to be addressed. One example, is the Livestock Sector Study, which Parliament has initiated as the basis for medium and long term reforms. At a discussion of the strategy last month, over 30 MPs, both Dy. Speakers, and a large number of NGOs, had participated.

This Friday, I met with the Mr. Baldan Ochir, head of the working group that is shepherding the strategy in Parliament. From our discussions, it seems that there is great willingness on part of Parliament to address many of the issues outlined in the document -- most of which are related to the sustainable development of the livestock sector.

So, no hesitations there!

Batkhishig B.
February 19, 2010

I do greatly appreciate for creating such space for forum and dialogue concerning Dzud-related issues in Mongolia. We have obtained sufficient lessons and experiences from 2000-2002 Dzud. It was well documented in some of the reports of the Government of Mongolia, donor agencies and NGOs. In addition, several scholar's articles were written that talk about outcomes of the 2000 Dzud. It would help any relief and development agencies to look back and get well informed from the past experiences to reveal efficient ways of relief and rehabilitation activities.

Secondly, 2010 Dzud will bring its novel consequences to the pastoral ecosystem in Mongolia. So we all have to prepared, but not be surprised! It will be too optimistic to expect that herders as well as arid and semi-arid rangeland ecosystem will demonstrate the same desired characteristics and functions after 2010 Dzud. The stresses (socio-economic, political and natural) that the herders and rangelands experienced for the last two decades increased the vulnerability and reduced resilience of social-ecological systems in rural Mongolia. Therefore, any short-or long-term strategies need to recognize that once the productivity of the pastoral systems, both in non-equilibrium and equilibrium, is lost it would be almost impossible to reverse or repair its productivity. In addition, once the coping capacity and relevant practices and kowledge are lost among herders and rural communities, it will be almost impossible to recover.

Finally, it is vital to assess what are the adaptive capacity and practices we have in different regions and places that might help us to overcome the stress with minimum loss and without losing existing memory and competative advantages.
Donor agencies along with the Government are responsible to identify and priortize not exogenous, but endogenous ways of coping and dealing with shocks and extend necessary assistance in this matter. Any development agenda related to the livestock sector in Mongolia, will have to assess the degree to which the pastoral system is capable to self-organize as a result of combined effects of socio-economic (e.g. market liberalization), ecological (Climate Change, Dzud 2010) and political changes that we face at the moment.

Batkhishig Baival, PhD Candidate in Rangeland Ecosystem Science

Arshad Sayed
April 21, 2010

I do not wish to be repetitive, but my two earlier comments are hopefully clear in suggesting that it is for Mongolians to pursue a bottom up process to decide what makes most sense in reducing the vulnerabilities faced by herders and in doing so to understand well the trade-offs among the options to choose from. As they go about doing so, its good to have as many views as possible -- and here yours alongside others, I hope will be helpful in this respect.

Arshad Sayed
February 21, 2010


I agree with your view that (i) we need to learn from past lessons of experience, (ii) the nexus between social, political, economic and ecological changes, needs to be understood well and any medium to long term strategy that seeks to restore the productivity of the pastoral systems, must ensure that such links are built in, and (iii) building upon the existing capacities and indigenous knowledge acquired over generations needs to be a priority and part of any development agenda of the livestock sector.

In supporting the government and the people of Mongolia in this endeavor I hope we can draw on the expertise and knowledge of people like you.

I would request that you kindly drop in a line to Erdene Ochir or Andrew Goodland, and meet with them to discuss your ideas further.

March 22, 2010

In line with Dennis's comments, having been brought up on a farm we thought ahead for the winter by stocking up with fodder selling off excess livestock, repairing shelters amd maintaining herds to a level the land can sustain. Basic good farming practice.

Goats and sheep are unfortunately and especially in marginal desert environments extremely destructive. This is seen in all countries where such conditions exist and lack of forthought, education and greed unfortunately exacerbates the problem.

It is clear from traveling throughout Mongolia the majority of the herders do not prepare their herds for winter. No fodder, just stone winter gers and small crowded shelters with no fodder. Animals are let out each day to feed or die.

In addition there has been an increase in herds without care or thought of the consequences, even though, there is obvious overgrazing and dzuds are known to occur on a +/- 10 year cycle. The quality of Mongolian cashmere has also dropped due to over populating the herds without care in breeding. This latter issue is slowly being addressed I understand.

What is needed unfortunately are farming laws and regulations to limit herd sizes on public land to levels that the land can sustain, and not be deteriorated by overgrazing. One merely needs to drive throughout Mongolia in the summer to see the result of lack of control on the land.

- So, in summary to counteract greed and overgrazing on public land...laws and regulations on herd size for different terranes

- Education on a soum by soum school basis including sustainable animal husbandry practices at school levels as many kids end up herding, when they leave school. If not educated in good herding/breeding practices at an early age they will never receive such education

- university trained animal husbandry officers in each soum to provide advise, education and control herd sizes.

- establish cooperatives to, amongst other things, develop areas for growing fodder for winter feed...NOT to maintain huge herds (as some will try to do) but to help herders in the worst part of the winter

All this will require a huge, committed political, financial and public effort, but if not done the disaster facing Mongolia in this 2009/10 winter will be repeated every +/- 10 years.

Arshad Sayed
March 22, 2010


Your comments are well taken. And alongside any formal laws or regulations, which inevitably leead to the question of how to enforce these, what is needed in my view is a bottom up process of engagement -- across the board -- with herders, settlers, and communities. This would be to elicit from them their ideas on how best to manage the herd size, how to enforce?, how to create cooperatives? how to ensure fairness so that people dont feel that if you happen to graze in an one area you can have large herd sizes whereas in another it is restricted, what kinds of approaches would work? where do they see the need for government intervention? how to allocate what are now "common lands" to private users and keep it that way? As such, along side any formal laws and regulations which have their limitations we need to build a "social compact" among all those who have a stake in this issue.

Andrei Marin
March 29, 2010

Of roughtly 230,000 herder households, only 3-4% own more than 500 livestock (200 has come to be considered as the minimum for survival).
Are these the 'huge herds' we are talking about? Or are we talking of the total national numbers- if so, what's the criterion for saying there are too many animals. Relate it to the total surface (half the size of India)? Or the total pasture area alone? How defined?
In addition, in most of Mongolia the precipitation is so erratic (coefficient of variation of 40-50% for the yearly averages), and consequently the primary production so variable that looking at the density per hectare in 'an average year' makes no sense. Simply because there is no such year.
Then, what is 'non-degrading' stocking density? The density that can be supported by pasture production in the worst year- which is 10 times lower that in the best year? Or should 'we' (whoever 'we' is and however questionably 'we' have come to have a stake in deciding how many animals should be allowed to graze the Mongolian pastures) accept (as herders do) that in some years the grazing pressure would be higher, and in some years some animals will die?
Mongolian herders do prepare their animals for winter- they fatten them during the summer and autumn (3 kinds of fattening-targa) and do cull their herds to some extent (on average 20% of national herd slaughtered for consumption per year). They do buy hay too (some at least) but when you need hay worth 0.5 USD per head per day plus transportation (in good years) while your sheep sell for 20 USD/head, it's easy to understand why you can't rely on fodder for the long term. By the way, subsidizing hay prices may be frowned upon as anti-market economy...

Amarsanaa T
April 06, 2010

First of all I would like to express my sincere appreciation to all people that participated in this discussion. I agree with all comments in here. Mining boom, climate changing, global warming, and rapid increase of population goat all caused harsh consequences of present situation. Honestly saying I little bit embarrassed that until now no Mongolians participated in here. As a ordinary Mongolian I want to share with you my own thoughts.
We are Mongolians talk about this issue among us very often. Every time we ask our selves what to do in the future? How to prevent this disaster?
If I have chance to meet people from countryside I ask them "is there any possibility to survive our livestock in this climate changing situation? Most of them replied that there is no solution how to deal with this. Frequency of DZUD is increasing year by year. Economic condition for herders getting worser dramatically. If this kind of disaster hits again next year I do not know how will they survive.
And it's time to us admit that aggregating circumstances of climate change (global warming) leads 'end' of nomadic life style of our people. We have to consider other resources for living. And one of possible way to living for rural people might be SEA- BUCKTHORN FARMING.

Arshad Sayed
April 07, 2010

Andrei, I think in general its very difficult to say what is a "correct" herd size. However, we know from past history that herd sizes in Mongolia right up to the 1990s did not go beyond 25 million. Now, were at 44 million or so. So, the question becomes with the market economy and liberalization, what incentives are leading herders to have more animals? Are they facing greater vulnerabilities? And in turn this 'forces' them to increase herd sizes? what happens if the herd size doubles from 44 to 88? will that be good to give enough income and security? or will increased quality of the herds by providing more value from the stock increase incomes and earnings? If so, how best can that be done?

As I mentioned earlier, these are discussions which need to take place from the bottom up, with communities, private sector, civic groups and the policy makers, so the trade-offs are well understood.

April 11, 2010

This year clients of our travel company, Boojum Expeditions, volunteered up around 2k USD to "help" the herders of Renchinlhumbe soum, Khovsgol. The money is to be administered by our business partner, former governor of Renchinlhumbe and the soum veterinarian (all the same person). He reports that the local herders have agreed to let that money seed their plan to form a grazing cooperative which would: Help prepare collectively for hay cutting and veterinary service, improve access to markets and efficiencies of transport to markets, give them the local political clout to claim their collective traditional grazing grounds for exclusive use by their cooperative and let them pursue more sustainable grazing practices. Our partner has no doubt that much of the problem is too many animals exacerbating the impact of dzud.

As to the question of goats: The argument that there is not a sufficient body of literature documenting the impact that goats have is a bit like saying we need to study climate change more before acting. The real problem was nailed by an earlier poster: No value added locally to Mongolian ag products. The raw cashmere goes to China and so does the raw horse hair (the largest wholesaler in the US of horse hair for industrial use and art like horse hair hitching, which has extraordinary value added potential, blithely believes their Chinese sources when told that all the first class hair comes from those vast herds of Chinese horses and the second class hair from Mongolia.) Herders actually have a lot of spare time which could be used adding value to their products. A single hitched horsehair belt retails in the US for upwards of $100 and can be made in a week of evening work. A horsehair hitched handled tashor can be made in a day or two and would sell very well.

There are herders out there who are entrepreneurial and willing to think outside the ger in order to be able to maintain that lifestyle. Expanded cell coverage gives them real time access to markets and prices. NGO's need to stop looking to provide BIG solutions and focus on small, innovative projects, nurture the entrepreneurs and let them go viral.

The real end of herding for northern Khovsgol will be the proposed road from Khankh across the northern end of Lake Khovsgol into the Darhat. That will be gasoline on the already problematic wild cat gold mining taking place in the Darhat.

Daniel Murphy
April 19, 2010

Greetings to all (some of whom I have met before),
My name is Daniel Murphy from the University of Kentucky in the US, and I have long-term research experience with herding households in Mongolia. For my dissertation research I lived with herding households for 15 months researching resource management issues. During that time, I did households surveys, interviews, resource mapping, and participant-observation. I would like to speak to some of the issues raise in these posts. (Sorry for the length).

First, I would like to echo many of Andrei’s sentiments concerning the problematic of connecting climate change and/or goat-induced degradation to reduced forage availability, particularly when it is clear there was a drought. Decoupling these factors to determine which is the cause of such high livestock mortality in the context of zud is extremely difficult, and although some research has been done, it is nowhere near conclusive enough to promote policies based on such 'observations' and 'recieved wisdom'. Much of what is discussed fits a very common narrative repeated all over the world when mobile pastoralists face such events. A narrative that all too often fits donors strategies but not those of who are most affected. This is not to say goats are not problematic or that climate change is not a real issue - but the fact is, as Andrei has pointed out,there is no real data to rely on. Moreover, I would add simply, how is it that herders have increased livestock from 20 million to 44 million when forage cover was supposed to be in a ‘disastrous’ decline – I wonder what livestock were living on during that time?

To the question regarding increased herd sizes: Herders in my research sample, who are from the soum with greatest number of myangat or 1,000 herders, kept larger herds not solely as a means of self-insurance but also to market. The wealthy sold a high percentage of their ‘surplus’ herds, while the poor consumed more. In the west, where livestock product markets are woefully lacking, large herds could be the result of self-insurance. But Mongolia is not monolithic, and the east if very, very different from the west.

What happens if the herd size doubles from 44 to 88: Not much – that household is still very poor. 88 is barely sustainable in the east, they would be considered the poorest of the poor. In the east, some households have upwards of 3-4,000 head of stock – one with 15,000. Interestingly, most research has shown that increased herd sizes do not necessarily affect other households, because wealthier households move more frequently, or, as is common in Mongolia, distribute their animals throughout the landscape to client or employee households. They also access pastures the poor cannot utilize.

Increased quality: So far, there are few incentives to increase quality. What does a higher quality sheep get a household in return? Better wooled-sheep simply do not survive without serious inputs – they cannot withstand the cold. Better-wool also will not bring significantly higher prices to support herding livelihoods. Plus, Mongolians prefer the meat of Mongol breeds. Quality also implies you have access to better breeding stock. There are greater incentives for more animals rather than better in the current marketplace. The same goes for cattle and horse. Households, however, I found did invest in better goat breeds – even the poorest. The search for the highest cashmere producing goats is always an on-going effort.

Limiting herd size: This suggestion reminds me of herders’ recollections of forced collectivization in the early 1930s and coerced collectivization in the late 50s and 60s. There are also a number of reasons why this is problematic: destroys local moral economies that redistribute stock, reduces the benefit of increased investments, would destroy livestock product markets, reduce the amount of meat to urban households, etc.

Additionally, I would like to address the notion that somehow private pasture rights are a pathway for mitigating zud risk. During my 15 months in Southern Khentii, I have personally lived through a minor zud. Much of my research data was collected in this context and therefore can speak to these issues. According to my research on the resource use practices of 132 herding households, the primary way in which herders deal with zud is through mobility – it is also the most successful method (this is not just what they said, my data reflect their actual practices). I found that herding households who were able to move not just quantitatively more but to qualitatively better locations were able to withstand the threat of zud to household livestock holdings – suffering on average: 1% mortality rate . Those who found themselves unable to move were exposed to increased rates of loss: 15%. Although economic resources are critical to movement, as Andrei suggests, I found that social and political resources are critical to migration capabilities. Households that moved collectively in large groupings of 6-8 households suffered lower losses and were able to access better forage zones. Moreover, they were able to collect sufficient information to make better informed choices. Households that had political connections through their respective parties, friendships through horse racing, or were able to make ‘gifts/bribes’ were able to leave the soum and arrange winter otor contracts in neighboring or even far-off soums. What is interesting about this data is that poor households that were able to move with wealthier ones experienced loss rates similar to their patron or employer households. The poor who were not able to move because they lacked the social capital to do so, found themselves exposed.

The point of this being: mobility is critically important. Nearly half the herders interviewed repeated the same phrase when I asked them about privatization or further privatization of pastureland: dain bolno doo! War will come! Several herders said they would start shooting officials if they did this. The implicit suggestion in previous posts that pasture land should be privatized is simply lacking in any logic. Zud is not a result of a lack of private rights in land. The assumed investments that herders would make in private lands would not make them less vulnerable to zud or other natural hazards, but rather more vulnerable – see Inner Mongolia. Although the problem is at its heart an institutional one (and a lack of markets in the western regions as evidence by the diverse herd compositions and lower total livestock levels per household), it is not one of private versus common property systems; rather, it is one of an ambiguous system that inadvertently relegates the poor and unconnected to what effectively is a ‘poverty trap’ versus a clear, institutional landscape that enables those very households to mitigate disaster the way they would if they had the institutional resources to do so.

Promoting privatization is not only being woefully ignorant of the implication such systems pose to herder livelihoods (as evidence by privatization of pastoral lands around the world), it is simply dishonest to say that this is a means to solve the problem posed by zud. Even the implicit suggestion feeds into the modernization fantasies of urban Mongolians whose disdain for herding livelihoods is borne out of some misplaced shame of material-lack, and who look to technocrats for top-down cookie cutter solutions.

Cooperatives and other pasture management groups represent a possible pathway. However, I would argue that better governance and better disaster management organization on the part of already in-place formal institutions, particularly via otor contracts and early warning (which needs to be better conceptualized), would serve to mitigate the risks posed by zud. Lastly, and most ardently, I would argue that a greater voice for herders and more democratic-based solutions are the only socially viable means for achieving better risk management. Empowerment requires not just giving herders assets it means creating a political space in which herders can construct their own futures.

Professor Paul Sullivan
September 01, 2012

I am looking into the causes, economic, social, and other effects and the possible ways to mitigate the damage to people, crops, livelihoods and more from the Zud.

Who are Mongolia's top experts on the Zud? Who are the top experts on this outside of Mongolia?

What organization, both domestic and international, help alleviate the disasters from the Zud?

What happens to the people who need to leave the lands to the cities? What do they end up doing? How do they live? Are there any detailed and rigorous reports on this?

Are there any projects in Mongolia for crop and livestock insurance that work well.

What are the plans for the next Zud? Does anyone have any idea when it will happen again? It is more common now than ever before.

Do your experts think this is because of climate change or for other reasons? Who is trying to look into this connection who does rigorous work?

Thank You

Paul Sullivan
Columnist UB Post Mongolia