Cold Winter Threatens Livelihoods of Mongolian Herders

Mongolia is a land of climate extremes, with long, cold winters and short summers. For a third of Mongolia's population whose livelihoods are dependent on nomadic herding, harsh winter conditions represent a significant challenge. Extreme cold temperatures coupled with heavy winter snowfalls can result in dzud, when thousands of animals die due to inability to graze or reach water. In the last 70 years, Mongolia has experienced 12 large-scale dzuds, with a total livestock loss of 40.1 million; over 60% died in the four dzuds since 1999.

This year's winter has been extremely cold and in some places the temperatures dropped to -50 degree Celsius. A series of heavy snowfalls worsened the situation and some aimags (provinces) are covered in snow up to 23-25 cm deep. In mountainous areas, the snow is as deep as 50-90 cm. If conditions continue, livestock may start die and jeopardize the livelihoods of local herder households. According to the government assessment, as of January 2017, 110 soums (districts) in 15 aimags are already at risk of dzud. In the areas with heavy snow fall, people are at risk of losing their access to food, fuel, and emergency services due to poor conditions or blocked road. In a number of soums, these issues are exacerbated by extremely low temperatures, putting both people and livestock at an increased risk. Specifically, pregnant women, children and elderly people are most likely to suffer from these conditions.

On December 20, 2016 the Government of Mongolia called for humanitarian assistance from international organizations to help herders and local communities affected by the harsh winter to prepare and respond to the dzud. Mercy Corps Mongolia responded to the call by announcing a call for proposal to fund up to ten projects that will help affected communities to better prepare and respond to dzud and build capacities to help the local authorities to plan and implement the dzud response activities better in the future. In addition, we are working to secure additional funding from donors such as ECHO and OFDA to support rapid the distribution of humanitarian assistance.

Mercy Corps began supporting the use of weather and pasture data through the Gobi Forage project resulting in the introduction of the Livestock Early Warning System (LEWS) in 2007. Since 2013, Mercy Corps has been implementing the Leveraging Tradition and Science projects (LTS and LTS2) funded by USAID that aims to reduce the risk of dzud to herder communities and rural economies in Mongolia by extending the reach and use of forecasting systems, and consolidating learning and best practices in managing responses. Under these projects Mercy Corps created an SMS automated system to disseminate weather and forage forecasts in 128 soums from 15 aimags, organized 73 trainings for 1,704 participants to educate local community at national and local levels on Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards, and printed and distributed 30,000 copies of the "Dzud Lessons" book containing best practices from experienced herders. Mercy Corps' SMS system has drastically improved herders' livelihood as they are now able to plan ahead activities such as setting up camps, moving to new pastures, harvesting, traveling, shearing sheep, cutting hay, and herding animals to different destinations depending on the weather. Many herders and government officials shared their gratitude for establishing this system. According to Mr. Mektepan, Chief of Staff of Bulgan soum, Bayan-Ulgii aimag, "The SMS system has proven to be very helpful to get local weather forecasts on a regular basis. Our soum is located 300 km from the aimag center, high in the mountains. Last month we used SMS forecasts to warn citizens about the upcoming snowfall. After the snow we mobilized citizens to clear the mountain passes and ensure the safety of travelers."

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