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?

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