Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mongolian Herding and the Harsh Winter (Dzud)

Mongolia's continental climate with its extreme and sharply fluctuating temperatures can be difficult for herders to weather, and the 2009/2010 winter has proved particularly harsh. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the bitter and long winter, which followed a dry summer, killed an estimated 8 million of Mongolia’s 44 million animals (nearly 20%), about a million more livestock than the previously worst winter of 1944. These conditions, known in Mongolian as a “dzud”, also wreaked havoc from 1999-2002 when Mongolians lost an estimated 11 million head over three winters, according to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) that is among the international NGOs that have been operating in Mongolia since the early 1990s.

In 2003, the dzud conditions caused an urban migration as herders and those supported by herding income scrambled to find work. Now the government is waiting to see how the market will handle such an impact before it really intervenes. The UNDP has been paying herders to bury carcasses to prevent the spread of disease. For more on the latest so-called "Cash for Carcasses," click here for the coverage.

Samuel De Jaegere / AFP - Getty Images from
A cow carcass lying frozen in the snow near the fence of a cattle ranch on the outskirts of the Mongolian district of Sergelen Soum.

The Importance of Herding in Mongolia
Central to their livelihood and the basis of their culture, roughly one-quarter of the country's 3 million people are pastoral nomads who move with their households in search of grasses for their animals. Their movement is seasonal, linked to rainfall and the availability of good forage for their animals, and they usually rotate their herds on roughly the same swaths of land that are close together. They depend on those lands to be free each year, though there are usually no formal agreements among herders as to who may use what land or when, herders know the allowable spots. Even still, many herds overlap, though this does not seem to bother most as it is a professional courtesy and code of the steppe is to share and share alike. Because of this lifestyle, herder families are usually remotely located, sometimes hours from their villages where their children attend schools and live in dorms for part of the year. Others raise livestock in or around villages utilizing slat board barns with angled roofs that typically face south to protect against winds from the north.

In Mongolia, the livestock roam free while the people are fenced in. Without pasture fences, livestock meander through villages, towns and most cities as they forage while people are restricted inside adjoining fenced-in properties (khashaa) with their families’ brick, block or wood houses and gers (or in any combination based on region). This also creates frequent traffic hazards as vehicles on approach honk to persuade livestock to provide a gangway.

  • For more on herding in Mongolia and the Mongolian economy, click here.
  • For more on the dzud from Peace Corps volunteers and the BBC, click here.
  • For a succinct Sky News video of the devastation, watch this:

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