Severe winter ‘dzud’ continues to ravage Mongolia

Livestock covered by snow during Mongolia’s 2010 dzud. (Credit: UNDP Mongolia / Flickr)

An extreme weather phenomenon in Mongolia that is expected to occur only about once a decade is now threatening the lives and livelihoods of herders for the second winter in a row. The a severe winter following a summer drought – called dzud has created “an unfolding humanitarian crisis,” according the latest U.N. update, with more than 157,000 people affected across 17 out of 21 provinces.

Some have called the weather pattern Mongolia’s “climate change nightmare” as it becomes more frequent and severe. Winter temperatures are dropping below minus 40 degrees Celsius and Fahrenheit, while the average temperature has risen at least 2.14 degrees Celsius over seven decades, according to the U.N. Environmental Program. Prior to last year’s dzud, the last one was in 2009-10

With each dzud, the population landscape of Mongolia shifts. Tens of thousands of herders are forced to give up their livelihoods each time and migrate to urban areas when their drought-weakened livestock are unable to survive the long, harsh winter.

Last year, more than 1 million animals died, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In 2009-10, more than 8 million livestock – about 20 percent of Mongolia’s total – died.

“Livestock is the only source of food, transport and income for almost half of the Mongolian population and we have to act now to help herders survive over the coming months,” Nordov Bolormaa, secretary-general of the Mongolian Red Cross, said in a press release on Feb. 16 that announced the launch of an international emergency appeal.

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A December assessment by the U.N. and Mongolia National Emergency Management Agency found that because of the decreased incomes and debt from ill and dying livestock, many herder households in affected areas have been unable to meet basic needs, including food, clothing, heating and cooking fuel and hygiene products.

Some herders, like last year, are selling their livestock while they’re still alive. This oversupply has driven down the price of meat 50 percent, while the price of essential non-meat food items has increased 10 percent since the summer.

Families with fewer than 200 animals to sell are the most vulnerable, according to the U.N. update. To cope, many are turning to negative fixes such as pulling their children out of school.

“Many will lose their livelihoods and will have no choice but to migrate to slum areas on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and other urban centers where they will face great social and economic hardship,” Gwendolyn Pang, head of the IFRC’s country cluster support team in Beijing, said in the press release.

According to the U.N. migration agency (IOM), herder households are moving to these areas in such large numbers that the government is unable to keep up with basic services, making life even harder for these families.

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In addition, numbers from the Ministry of Health reveal that more than a quarter of those affected at the moment are are children, pregnant women, people with special needs and elderly people who have been cut off from access to essential services such as health care and education.

Recent studies suggest that the financial impact of dzud on families has an especially severe effect on the health and education of children. The health impacts are not surprising, but the effect on education is both greater and longer-lasting than perhaps expected.

Basic education in Mongolia is tuition-free. Still, children who were of school age in an affected area during a dzud were significantly less likely to complete mandatory education for up to 10 years after the dzud, compared to peers in unaffected areas. The implications are not positive for Mongolia’s economy in the long run.

Although Mongolia is a low-emitter of greenhouse gases, Ulaanbaatar suffered a smog episode worse than Beijing’s in December as power plants worked overtime to heat homes. It’s an unfortunate cycle and reminder that everyone is at the mercy of global climate change, but especially the most vulnerable.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.