Aid agencies say nearly 5 million animals died in Mongolia’s harshest winter in half a century

(CNN) — The International Federation of the Red Cross has warned that Mongolia is facing its harshest winter in half a century, with extreme conditions killing more than 4.7 million animals and threatening the livelihoods and food supplies of thousands of people.

Severe conditions, known as DZ, are characterized by increasing cold temperatures and deep snow and ice covering pasture areas and cutting off access to forage for livestock.

About 300,000 people in Mongolia are traditional nomadic herders and depend on their cattle, goats and horses for food and market sales.

A dog howling near dead sheep and goats amid extremely cold weather conditions in Bayanmunkh, Khentii province, Mongolia on February 22, 2024. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

“People who are completely dependent on their livestock for survival have become destitute in a matter of months,” Alexander Matthews, the International Federation’s regional director for Asia Pacific, told CNN on Thursday. “Some of them can no longer feed themselves or heat their homes.”

At least 2,250 pastoral families have lost more than 70% of their livestock since November, according to the International Federation. He said more than 7,000 families no longer had access to adequate food.

Dzud has affected three-quarters of the country, but the situation is expected to worsen as winter continues.

A sheep in a field amid extremely cold weather in Bayanmunkh, Khentii province of Mongolia on February 22, 2024. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s spring now, but it’s getting colder in Mongolia, there’s still snow on the ground and cattle are still dying,” says Matthew.

The Mongolian government last month announced extreme preparations that will last until May 15, and on Tuesday the International Federation launched an appeal for funds to ease the suffering of people who have lost their livelihoods.

“Despite the high level of preparedness that Mongolia has undertaken this year and in previous years, it is not sufficient to deal with extreme situations,” Matthews said. “We have made a lot of preparations and the scale still took us by surprise.”

Dzud has had a devastating economic impact on herders and has disrupted travel, trade, and access to health care and education for many Mongolians, especially those living in rural areas, as heavy snowfall closes road access. .

Why is this year’s dzud so bad?

Pastoral families often move with the seasons, traveling across the country’s vast grasslands in search of new pastures to graze their livestock.

They use the summer months to grow fodder, hay, and crops to help their animals during the winter.

Although they are accustomed to Mongolia’s harsh winters, a dzud (or “disaster”) occurs when a summer drought is followed by heavy snowfall and extreme cold.

Temperatures can drop to −30 °C (−22 °F) or lower.

According to the World Health Organization, this year’s snowfall is the highest in 49 years and covered 90% of the country at its peak in January.

Last year the summer had started well with abundant rains. But according to the United Nations, a sharp drop in temperatures and early snowfall in November led to a sudden rise in temperatures, causing the snow to melt. This was followed by prolonged cold with temperatures falling below -40 degrees Celsius in some areas.

This meant that pastures were poor, so animals could not fatten before winter and herders could not harvest enough hay to survive.

Now, Mongolia has been hit by dual “white” and “iron”, meaning very deep snow is preventing animals from reaching pasture, with heavy snow locking pastures under snow.

A traditional yurt in Bayanmunkh, Khentii province, Mongolia on February 22, 2024. Byambasuren Byamba-Ochir/AFP/Getty Images

Droughts are becoming more common in Mongolia, so grasslands and herders do not have time to recover from extreme weather events.

“These dzuds are cyclical and occur more and more frequently. Six cases have been reported in the last 10 years…this is the worst so far. But they keep happening. Earlier they used to be occasional, now they are frequent,” said Matthew of the International Federation.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Mongolia is one of the countries most affected by the climate crisis, with average air temperatures rising by 2.1 degrees Celsius over the past 70 years.

According to UN agencies, human-caused climate change has altered the country’s four distinct seasons, leading to frequent summer droughts followed by harsh winters.

The impact of this year’s crisis is expected to exceed that of Dzud, which hit Mongolia in 2010, killing 10.3 million cattle, according to the International Federation.

“We are witness to the many struggles that many pastoral families face, ranging from the loss of their precious livestock to financial hardship, limited resources, and people’s physical and mental health,” said Olga Dzumeva, Director of the International Federation of Pastoralists. But there are enormous pressures involved.” East. the Asian delegation said in a statement.

“Yet we see the unwavering hope and resilience of many families as they fight the ravages of winter with incredible strength. “Continuing livestock deaths, dwindling resources and the deteriorating conditions of hundreds of thousands of people in Mongolia this winter are a reminder of the urgent need for assistance.”

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