Severe `zud' devastates Mongolia

Sun Journal

Animals: A prolonged drought and a bitter winter have killed more than 1 million head of livestock in the nation of nomadic herders.

March 30, 2000|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- When she was an accountant for a collective farm under Mongolia's former communist system, L. Gochoogiin used to scold herdsmen whose livestock died. It is your fault, she would tell them, for neglecting the state's cattle and sheep.

But after this year's devastating winter, the 62-year-old woman recalls her sternness with remorse.

Now a private herder, she cannot step outside her felt-covered yurt without seeing a field of carcasses. The cold killed 12 cows and 60 sheep and cashmere goats. Twenty-eight horses ran off in a blizzard and might be dead.

"It has been hard, very hard," Gochoogiin said. "The cold that came from the river basin caused a lot of deaths. Even live animals were lying on the ground, and their ears were completely frozen."

As spring arrives, this landlocked nation of nomadic herders is struggling to recover from the "zud," a prolonged drought combined with a bitter winter in which temperatures dropped as low as minus 49.

About 1.6 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats and camels have died, and that number is expected to rise to as high as 3 million by the time weakened animals and their young die during the spring foaling season.

That would amount to nearly 10 percent of the nation's 33 million head of livestock.

The harsh weather affected the country unevenly. Some provinces were devastated, while other regions were untouched.

About 300,000 nomads have suffered losses, government and private relief agencies say, and more than 50,000 of them have lost all or most of their flocks.

The government reports seven winter-related deaths, but more are expected.

"Within weeks, we expect to see a significant number of human deaths, in addition to those who have perished from the prolonged winter cold, exhaustion and malnutrition," said U.S. Ambassador Alphonse F. La Porta.

Livestock deaths are rising, according to Prime Minister R. Amarjagal. (Like many Mongolians, Amarjagal has no last name and uses his father's initial with his given name.) That deprives the nomads of their sustenance, their milk and meat, and the cash they earn from selling wool and cashmere.

"There will definitely be more deaths in the spring, and there will be more suffering among the people," Amarjagal said.

Officials have yet to calculate the cost of the disaster, though the losses of horses and cattle have cost herdsmen nearly $40 million. But in a nation famous for its warrior shepherds, the loss of animals is more than an economic crisis.

The crisis is especially difficult for the 500,000 herders in this nation of 2.6 million people, says C. Ganbold, a publisher and adviser to Amarjagal.

"Livestock means for them bread and butter," he said. "Livestock means the income for education at secondary schools. Livestock means the possibility of sending their kids to university. Livestock means cash income. And so the effects will continue next winter and beyond."

Individuals, foreign governments and relief agencies have provided cash, but Mongolian officials say it is difficult to capture the world's attention when the crisis involves dying animals in a remote nation.

Many families will have exhausted their food by next month or May and need food assistance, says Juergen Weyand, senior liaison officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

What is needed most is the cash to enable herders to buy animals.

"This is a matter of reallocating," said Weyand. "But you have to buy from those who have and give to those who need. This isn't a socialist country anymore. You can't just take it away."

About 100 miles southwest of the capital of Ulan Bator, the rutted dirt roads are scarcely distinguishable from the stubble of the overgrazed steppes. Fodder has been nibbled to the dirt in vast stretches of this nation wedged between China and Russia, and the grass might not grow until June or July, leaving livestock with nothing to eat but dung, herdsmen say.

Carcasses of cattle and horses are scattered across the land. In some regions, autopsies have revealed dirt and stones in the stomachs of dead horses.

The crisis is particularly difficult for a nation emerging from its 65-year history as a Soviet satellite.

As post-communist reformers privatized the economy during the past decade, many urban dwellers, suddenly able to buy and sell animals, returned to their ancestral trades as herdsmen. But some newcomers are ill-prepared to handle a winter of this severity. The last "zud" this severe hit in 1964-1965.

One of them, a woman named Lham, has learned the hard way how she might have saved more animals.

"If I'd had an extra yurt," she said, "during the cold I could have put the small animals inside and kept them from freezing."

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