BEIJING: Thousands of Mongolian herders are facing disastrous livestock losses from a dreaded severe weather phenomenon known as the "dzud".
Temperatures in parts of Mongolia have gone as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius, while snow is blanketing more than three-quarters of the country, threatening the livelihoods of herders who depend entirely on livestock for food, transportation and income.
A dzud used to occur only once every 12 years, but now appears roughly once every four years. Climate change is believed to be behind this new pattern.
This is the second year in a row that landlocked Mongolia is grappling with dzud conditions.
Animals search for pasture among the snow in Arkhangai province in central Mongolia. (Photo: Save the Children UK)
More than 1 million animals perished during last year’s dzud, while more than 8 million died in the previous one in 2010.
The current dzud has killed more than 40,000 animals so far, but experts said the worst is yet to come.
Non-governmental organisation (NGO) Save the Children has warned that Mongolia’s poorest herders are increasingly going into debt just to buy food.
They are also selling off their livestock cheaply and skipping meals as they brace for large-scale livestock deaths over the coming months.
The Red Cross has estimated that currently, more than 157,000 people are at risk this year across 17 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces.
Among them is Daariimaa Bileg, a nomad who herds animals about 50 kilometres outside Ulaanbaatar, the capital city.
“The dzud is difficult for everyone," she said. "Two of our children are students. That means if our livestock don’t make the winter, we won't be able to afford their tuition fee for the next year."
Herder Daariimaa Bileg fears that the dzud will kill her livestock. (Photo: Save the Children UK)
"Hence we’re doing our best to keep our animals alive. As livestock is our (only) source of income, I often have trouble sleeping because of the stress and worry of losing our livestock,” she added.
Mongolia’s recent economic downturn has also added to the crisis by limiting the government’s ability to prepare.
Stockpiles of fodder and hay are reportedly much smaller than planned, and there is less help for vulnerable herders.
The Red Cross has launched an international emergency aid appeal while NGOs like Save the Children are providing relief including hay and veterinary packages to keep animals alive.
“The next couple of months in particular are really important," said Evan Schurrman from Save the Children. "If we see huge amounts of snowfall and temperatures remain really low in the minus 30s and 40s and 50s, then we really could see huge numbers of animals deaths, similar to last year when more than a million animals died.”