BANGKOK, Feb 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of
thousands of nomadic herders in Mongolia face hunger and the
loss of their livelihoods, the Red Cross warned on Thursday, as
temperatures plummet and heavy snow blankets much of the country
for a second straight winter.
In December, the Mongolian government asked international
agencies to provide aid to the most vulnerable herder households
who are suffering extreme winter conditions known as a "dzud".
The dzud is peculiar to the landlocked Asian nation and has
become more frequent in recent years.
It occurs when a summer drought is followed by a harsh
winter, causing widespread deaths among the livestock which
herding families rely on for food, transport and income.
More than 157,000 people across 17 of 21 provinces are
affected by this year's dzud, said Nordov Bolormaa,
secretary-general of the Mongolian Red Cross. More than 70
percent of the country is currently covered in snow, according
to the government.
"Now it's very cold - temperatures are reaching minus 40
degrees Celsius (-40°F) in the northern provinces," said
Bolormaa, adding that snow storms started a month early last
year, at the end of October.
The Red Cross launched an appeal on Thursday for $654,000 to
help 11,300 people with cash, health services and other support.
Around 30 percent of Mongolia's 3 million population lives
off animal herding, according to the World Bank, and meat is the
primary source of food.
Mongolian government figures show more than 42,000 animals
had died by early February. The Red Cross warns that number will
soar as severe weather is expected to continue through March.
As many as 1.1 million livestock died last winter, and the
dzud of 2009-2010, one of the most severe in history, saw 9.7
million livestock deaths.
Mongolia is already struggling with an economic crisis, as a
weak local currency has made household goods more expensive.
Bolormaa remembers growing up with a traditional Mongolian
saying - that when the year of the monkey comes around once in
each 12-year lunar calendar, it invites disasters like the dzud.
But in the last 27 years, Mongolia has experienced seven
dzuds, she said. "This traditional understanding and
preparedness is changing," she added.
Now the dzud has hit Mongolia two years in a row.
While some environmental groups point the finger at climate
change, Maarten van Aalst, director of the Netherlands-based Red
Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, said it was hard to make the
link with certainty because the dzud is a complex phenomenon.
"What we do know, generally, is that extremes are increasing
and the predictability of what we can expect as a normal climate
in a particular place is gone now," he said by telephone.
Other factors such as denser population and herding patterns
could be compounding the effects of the dzud, he noted.
Its growing frequency has resulted in mass migration of
out-of-work herders to Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar, putting a
strain on the city over the last decade.
Migrants end up living in "ger districts", makeshift
neighbourhoods named after traditional yurt dwellings, where
they burn coal, tyres and household waste to keep warm, creating
massive pollution problems.
To help protect herders from climate-related losses to their
livestock, the World Bank in Mongolia launched the world's first
index-based livestock insurance scheme in 2005.
Since adopted by the Mongolian government, it is based on an
index of livestock mortality rates by species and district, and
offered through local insurance companies and banks.
But take-up has been slow. In 2016, close to 19,000 herding
households were insured, or around 12 percent of the total,
according to Ulziibold Yadamsuren, former director of the
programme at the World Bank.
The cost of insurance is high for poor herders, and they
cannot meet some of the criteria such as a requirement for all
livestock to be vaccinated, said the Red Cross's Bolormaa.
"The implementation of the insurance is yet to be understood
by the herders," she said.
(Reporting By Thin Lei Win; editing by Megan Rowling; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.