Mongolia and its 800,000 herders are reeling from the worst winter that anyone can remember. According to United Nations relief officials, nearly eight million cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats and sheep died, about 17 percent of the country’s livestock. Even if the spring rains arrive soon, 500,000 more animals are expected to succumb in the coming weeks.
“This is not only a catastrophe for the herders but for the entire Mongolian economy,” said Mr. Akbar Usmani, the resident representative for the United Nations Development Program. “We expect the ripple effects for months and years to come.” The UN estimates that the current disaster may prompt as many as 20,000 herders to abandon their nomadic life and flee to cities.
“A lot of the herders have no skills, so they usually end up breaking the law and falling into poverty,” said Mr. Buyanbadrakh, the governor of a small administrative district. He said 70 percent of the livestock in his district, Zuunbayan-ulaan, were wiped out this year with at least 2,800 families losing their entire herds. “People are taking it very hard,” he said. “Some have gone crazy.”
The disaster poses a challenge to a government already struggling to address the needs of the third of the population that lives in poverty. But it also raises a host of thorny questions about climate change, environmental degradation and whether the pastoral way of life that sustains many of the country’s 3 million people has a future.
Mongolians are fiercely proud of their millenniums-old nomadic ways. Although mining and tourism are a growing portion of the Mongolian economy, a third of the population still depends entirely on husbandry for its livelihood. “The key question we have to ask is whether this way of life is sustainable,” said Mr. Usmani. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”
Despite the severe winter, one of the more sensitive long-term issues, oddly, is how to curb the explosive growth in livestock, which has quadrupled to 40 million head since the 1990 revolution that ushered in democracy and ended a socialist system that tightly controlled the size of the nation’s herds to prevent overgrazing. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the two decades of unbridled privatization and a boom in cashmere exports upended the traditional mix of livestock, which had long favored sheep over goats.
In the past, sheep made up 80 percent of small-animal herds and goats the rest. But as the price of cashmere soared over the last decade, that ratio reversed, with devastating results for the ecology of the steppe. Voracious eaters, goats often destroy the grass by nibbling at the roots. Their sharp hooves also damage fragile pasture by breaking up the protective tangle of grass and lichens, allowing the wind to sweep away topsoil and encouraging desertification.
The other wildcard is climate change, which many herders blame for the increasingly inhospitable weather. Winters are longer and colder, the winds blow stronger and the summers, they say, are drier. “I don’t know what happened to the mild spring rains that the grass needs to drink,” said Degkhuu, 62, a lifelong herder who lost his entire flock. “Now, when the rains come they are heavy and create flash floods.”
A recent World Bank study found that hundreds of rivers and lakes had disappeared in Mongolia, and the diversity of plant species had plummeted by a third since 1997, although researchers partly blamed the proliferation of goats.
Those lucky enough to get a spot on the crews in a work-for-cash program, financed with a USD1.5 million UN grant, to gather animal carcasses and bury them in pits are happy for the income, but at best, the money will only delay a looming crisis among families who have run out of food and are saddled with bank loans they took on to buy emergency feed. Mr. Lkhagvasuren, 34, a herder who lost 1,000 animals, said he owed over USD1,800, a huge sum given that the average Mongolian earns USD3,200 a year. He said he lost most of his most prized animals — horses, cows and about 200 yaks — and that it would take at least a decade to replenish his herd of goats and sheep, about 100 of which survived.
Source: The New York Times

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