Drought followed by harsh winter spells disaster

By Karen Percy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Updated Wed May 26, 2010 4:07pm AEST

Disaster zone … A herder on the way to the local burial ground in the Zuunbayan-Ulaan district of Mongolia. (ABC News: Karen Percy)

It is an awe-inspiring sight: the vast plains of Mongolia where animals roam free. Local men and women are wearing the traditional deel, or robe, as they go about their work. It is a timeless image – romantic and rustic.

But as we get closer to the scene, upon a gentle slope there is a mass grave. The herders of the Uvurkhangai province in central Mongolia are burying the carcasses of hundreds upon hundreds of goats. There is a cloud of melancholy over the group. The stench is overwhelming.

Mongolia is counting the cost of one of the harshest winters on record. Across the country an estimated 8.5 million goats, sheep, horses, camels, yaks and cows have died of hunger or succumbed to the freezing conditions. That’s one in five of the entire national herd.

They’re the victims of what the Mongolians call a zhud – a condition where a summer drought is followed by a very cold and snowy winter. There were poor grass yields in the summer of 2009 in central Mongolia. Then winter hit early and with a vengeance.

“In the wintertime we had the situation here where it was -40 to -45 degrees celsius. So we made the decision to declare a disaster zone. It was a situation no one could deal with,” says Togtokhsuren Dulamorj, governor of Uvurkhangai province, which is one of the worst affected areas.

Freak snowstorms were also reported, claiming the lives of 16 people. The National Emergency Management Agency’s small provincial team saved more than 80 others who had been trapped or lost in the snow.

Frozen to death

In the Uyanga district, 450 kilometres south-west of the capital Ulan Bator, 45 per cent of the flock is dead because of the zhud.

Byambatseren Dondov, 51, shows us the rustic wooden shelter which should be buzzing with the sound of shearing. She lost her entire herd of about 30 sheep and goats, and ten cows. Only her neighbour’s animals remain.

“The livestock were frozen on the pasture. They froze while they were being carried back to the shelter. We had taken precautions but just couldn’t cope with the conditions,” she says.

Across the district she and her fellow herders are cleaning up under a cash-for-work project being overseen by the United Nations Development Program. They will earn from $60-90 for removing and burying the carcasses. It’s much needed money at a time when debts are due and food and other supplies are running low.

The spring conditions have been unpredictable and the work has sometimes been disrupted by snow storms, or extreme winds.

“It makes it difficult to reach the affected families. And then when the snow melts it is very slippery therefore it’s not possible to continue using vehicles and we have to stop for a while,” says Gunsen Bayarsakhan the UNDP’s office overseeing the project in Uvurkhangai province.

The clean-up is expected to be completed by the end of May.

Then the really hard work begins – trying to rebuild the industry and people’s lives.

The government has declared disaster zones in 15 of 21 provinces and through the United Nations is seeking $21m to assist in the immediate clean up of the dead animals. Australia has contributed $1m so far.

The money will also be used to rebuild the lives of the 800,000 herders who have been affected.

“People are taking it very hard. They are very depressed. Some have gone a bit crazy because of it,” says Zagar Buyumbadrakh, district governor of Zuunbayan-Ulaan, where two thirds of the livestock were wiped out.

Changing practices

This zhud has exposed huge problems in the way the livestock industry is run in Mongolia. Until 1995 it was controlled by government collectives and regulations. These days there is little thought to land and water management and last year there were 44-million animals roaming the land – well above the carrying capacity of the pastures. This has led to tensions among the herders.

The privatisation of the business also led many young, inexperienced herders to buy animals. When prices for cashmere wool hit $40 a kilogram three years ago, herders took on more goats – voracious eaters which tread heavily. Once goats made up 20 percent of the national herd. Now they account for 80 per cent.

As a result of these developments, and the effects of climate change over the same time period, the land is now suffering from degradation and desertification in some parts. Water supplies are being affected as well.

So part of the UNDP’s ongoing work will be to introduce better herding practices – with a focus on fewer, better-quality beasts, and keeping them inside during the worst parts of the winter.

Families are being offered land to establish vegetable plots, and communities are exploring small-scale businesses such as dairies or wool processing.

These might seem like simple aims, but they would have a big impact on the nomadic nature of Mongolia. The UNDP’s country director, Akbar Usmani, says it’s time for change.

“The key issue is how do we get some of these best practices out there? And doing some advocacy work in trying to change this way of thinking, to change this way of lifestyle. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be a big challenge,” he says.

Some families have already left the countryside for the bigger centres in the hopes of finding other work. Those who remain are hoping to qualify for a government-run restocking program. And several local governors across Uvurkhangai province say there is interest in the alternative programs being offered.

While the herders have fiercely defended their way of life for thousands of years, there is now a sense that they are ready to try something different. They’re already using modern day tools such as motorbikes, satellite dishes and solar power. What are needed now are updated practices that will preserve the best traditions and ensure Mongolia’s nomadic herders last long into the future.

Karen Percy was given rare access to the situation earlier this month during a UN-backed media trip to the hardest hit areas of Central Mongolia.

First posted Wed May 26, 2010 4:00pm AEST