Harsh Mongolian winter leaves 4.7m animals dead; Red Cross issues appeal

UN says Mongolian herders are experiencing extreme ‘dzud’ cold conditions more often, with little time to recover before the next one.

Mongolian herders have endured months of extreme cold, known as the “dzud”, that have already claimed the lives of about 4.7 million livestock animals, according to Mongolia’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), prompting an emergency appeal for assistance from the Red Cross.

At least 2,250 herder families have lost more 70 percent of their livestock, as this year’s dzud blankets grazing lands in deep snow and ice, according to the Red Cross, and there are predictions many more animals will be unable to survive the next few weeks.

About 30 percent of the country’s 3.3 million people are nomadic herders, living in dwellings known as gers or yurts on the country’s vast open steppes.

Olga Dzhumaeva, head of the East Asia delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), said herders were facing “the loss of their precious livestock” and “immense pressures on people’s mental and physical health.

“The ongoing livestock deaths, diminishing resources and deteriorating conditions of hundreds of thousands of people in Mongolia this winter is a stark reminder of the urgent need for assistance,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

round tents buried in snow
Heavy snowfall has buried more than 1,000 herder households’ gers – round tent-like dwellings [Courtesy of Mongolian Red Cross Society]

Mongolians are used to enduring cold conditions, especially during the winter months from December to March, but extreme cold is known as dzud – the Mongolian word for disaster.

During dzuds, temperatures in some parts of the country fall as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).

This year’s dzud has seen numerous blizzards, bringing heavy snow.

According to the United Nations, dzuds are already becoming more common with climate change.

This is the sixth dzud Mongolia has experienced in the past decade, with herders still struggling to recover after last year’s harsh winter which claimed the lives of 4.4 million livestock animals.

people walk near animal bodies buried in snow
The crisis disproportionately affects Mongolian families with smaller herds, the Red Cross said [Courtesy of Mongolian Red Cross Society]

A drought last summer also meant that many animals were not able to build up enough fatty stores ahead of the colder months.

Changing conditions

Climate change has disrupted Mongolia’s four season cycle, leading to a rise “in recurrent summer droughts and subsequent harsh winters” since 2015, Tapan Mishra, the UN resident coordinator in Mongolia, said last month.

The loss of grazing options for livestock has meant herders already used up their hay and fodder stocks months earlier than usual, the Red Cross says.

According to official data, Mongolia had some 64.7 million livestock animals at the end of 2023.

Mongolia is known for its unique breeds of sheep, cattle, horses, goats, dromedaries, Bactrian camels and yaks, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

These include the Bayad sheep, which can endure even Mongolia’s coldest regions after centuries of selective breeding, and provide families with milk, wool and meat.

a person guides an animal through the snow in the mountains
A herder walks with a horse through the snow [Courtesy of Mongolian Red Cross Society]

The loss of so many livestock has placed strains on herder communities, who were “prepared for harsh conditions, but not to such an extent”, according to the Red Cross.

Bolormaa Nordov, secretary-general of the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS), said she hoped a new Red Cross appeal would help to “minimise the impact of the Dzud emergency and support households with longer-term solutions for their lives and livelihoods”.

IFRC’s Dzhumaeva said Mongolians were surviving, but were in urgent need of help.

“Yet we see the unwavering hope and resilience of so many families as they battle winter’s wrath with incredible strength,” said Dzhumaeva.

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