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Mongolia: Analysis From Washington -- Wiped Out By Weather?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A second brutally cold winter in a row threatens to destroy the foundations of the traditional way of life in Mongolia, something neither rapid modernization nor 70 years of communist power succeeded in doing.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this week that the harshest winter in half a century had already killed 1.3 million head of the livestock which Mongol nomads traditionally herd, and more bad weather combined with shortage of food for the animals means that another five million head may die by spring.

Those losses, on top of the livestock and human deaths during the winter of 1999/2000 -- which Mongols had said was the worst in a generation -- may complete the destruction of the nomadic life that one-third of Mongolia's 2.4 million people still follows.

The senior United Nations official on the scene, Saraswathi Menon, said that the weather-related deaths represent "the loss of a whole way of life and culture that has existed for centuries." The United Nations has issued an appeal for help, and many governments and international relief groups have responded. But the amount of aid so far will do little more than keep the nomads alive until the summer.

Then the question will arise as to whether it is going to be possible to rebuild the herds. Many Mongols doubt it in a country where families with fewer than 20 animals are considered the poorest of the poor. As one 64-year-old Mongol nomad told a visiting journalist: "I've been taking care of sheep since I was nine years old. there have been cold hard winters but none as hard as this. We don't know how we'll survive."

In the past, Mongol nomads also faced harsh winters, but they were far better positioned to survive, both because the nomads were more self-contained and less tied to the urban economy and because the nomads tended to be more acceptant of both human and animal losses.

Relief agencies have identified as their most immediate task the supplying of food, medical attention, and shelter to people who have always lived on their own and having only minimal contact with cities and the country's officials. These people somehow continue to find something to eat, much to the amazement of UN officials on the scene and other outside observers.

But the loss of the herds in the harsh winter threatens more than lives; it threatens a way of life that has existed for more than a millennium, a way of life that many outside forces -- the Chinese, the Russians, and the Soviet-backed Mongol communists -- attempted to rein in and then uproot, every one of them without much success.

Now the weather may do what these forces could not. If it does, the end of nomadism in Mongolia will almost certainly leave that country in an even more desperate situation than it has been over the last decade. It will mean that the country's government will have to find employment for almost 50 percent more people and do so quickly despite having virtually no resources at hand.

That could lead to the more familiar kind of humanitarian crisis with hungry people flocking to the cities in search of food. But the international community, as UN officials in Mongolia make clear, does not as yet have a plan in place to save Mongolian nomadism. And unless such a plan is devised soon, the weather of this winter may complete the destruction of one of the last nomadic communities on earth, thus cutting the world off from a way of life that many communities practiced in the past.

That may seem to many to be yet another price of progress, high but inevitable. But Kazakh, Russian, and Western scholars have shown that nomadism represents an important source of information on how to survive in extreme situations, one from which modern communities can learn.

For that reason too, the destruction of nomadism in Mongolia by the weather may prove to be a far greater tragedy than even the losses inflicted by the weather so far.