Mongolia winter kills herds, devastating the poorest

28 Mar 2010 21:00:18 GMT

By Tyra Dempster

BEIJING, March 29 (Reuters) – A severe winter has left 4.5 million dead animals in stockyards across the Mongolian steppes, and many poor herders face the loss of all their property just before the important breeding season.

About a tenth of Mongolia’s livestock may have perished, as deep snows cut off access to grazing and fodder.

The damage to the rural economy could increase demands on Mongolia’s already-stretched national budget, which relies on mining revenues to meet spending commitments.

The Red Cross launched an emergency appeal for 1 million Swiss francs to assist Mongolian herders, after it estimated that 4.5 million livestock have died in the country since December.

“The numbers of livestock that have perished have gone up very, very quickly and dramatically now to about 4 million which is roughly a tenth of the whole livestock population,” Francis Markus, communications director for the Red Cross’ East Asia delegation, said in Beijing after returning from Mongolia.

“This means that thousands of families, mostly coming from the poorest and most vulnerable layers of the herder population, have lost their entire flocks of animals and have been left in a very, very distraught and very, very desperate state.”

Roughly one-quarter of Mongolia’s 3 million people are nomads, while others also raise livestock in fixed settlements. Many go deeply in debt to buy and raise their herds, in hopes of making the money back by selling wool, meat and skins.

A similar combination of a summer drought, followed by heavy snow and low winter temperatures, which is known in Mongolian as a ‘zud’, caused widespread hardship in Mongolia a decade ago.

As a result, impoverished herder families flocked to the slums outside the capital, Ulan Bator, straining the city’s ability to provide basic services.

“The herding community’s situation is very hard now. The best off are those who still have around 40 percent of their livestock left and in the worst 50 cases are those who have lost absolutely everything,” said Zevgee, speaker of the county parliament in Bayangol, southwest of the capital.

This zud was the worst for several years, with temperatures dropping to 40 degrees Celsius below zero or colder in 19 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces, according to a World Bank report.

Around 63 percent of Mongolia’s rural residents’ assets are their livestock, it said, and at least 35 percent of the population earn a living from their animals.

Herder Tsendjav said that she had no option but to rely on the government and aid to survive the weather.

“I have seen many zuds that have caused the loss of numerous animals but I have never seen a zud as bad as this one,” she said at a Red Cross aid dispensary.

(Writing by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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