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Mongolia: Cold Winter Causes Crisis

A prolonged drought followed by a bitter winter has left the former Soviet satellite of Mongolia in danger of widespread hunger this spring and summer as livestock die off throughout the country. RFE/RL correspondent Russell Working reports from Ulaan Baatar.

Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia; 30 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As spring arrives, landlocked Mongolia, a nation of nomadic herders, is struggling to recover from weather that has killed nearly 2 million horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and even camels. The figure is expected to rise to as many as 3 million by the time weakened animals and their young die off during the spring foaling season.

This would comprise nearly 10 percent of the nation's 33 million head of livestock. But the weather hit the country unevenly, so that some provinces are devastated while other regions are untouched. Some 300,000 nomads have suffered losses, and more than 50,000 have lost all or most of their flocks, government and private relief agencies say. In a nation of only 2.6 million people, those numbers are high.

About 100 miles southwest of Ulaan Baatar, the rutted dirt roads are scarcely distinguishable from the stubble of the overgrazed steppes. Fodder has been nibbled to the dirt in vast stretches of this nation, wedged between China and Russia, and the grass may not grow until June or July. Until then, herders say, livestock have nothing to eat but dung. Carcasses of cattle and horses are scattered across the land. In some regions, autopsies show dirt and stones in the stomachs of dead horses.

In a recent cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis, Prime Minister R. Amarjagal warned that livestock deaths are still rising [like many Mongolians, Amarjagal has no last name and uses his father's initial in addition to his given name].

In the prime minister's words: "There will definitely be more deaths in the spring, and there will be more suffering among the people."

Officials have yet to calculate the total cost of the disaster, though they say the death of horses and cattle has already cost herders nearly $40 million. Ch. Ganbold, an adviser to Amarjagal, says that for the nomads, animals are the sole source of sustenance -- their milk and meat, the cash they earn from selling wool and cashmere.

In Ganbold's words: "Livestock means for them bread and butter. Livestock means the income for education at secondary schools. Livestock means the possibility of sending their kids to university. Livestock means cash income. And so the effects will continue next winter and beyond."

A case in point is L. Gochoogii. When she was a collective farm accountant under the Soviet system here, she says she used to scold herders whose livestock died.

But after this year's devastating winter, the 62-year-old woman recalls her sternness with remorse. Now a private herder, Gochoogiin cannot step outside her yurt without seeing a field of carcasses. The cold killed 12 cows and 60 sheep and cashmere goats, and 28 horses ran off in a blizzard and may be dead. "The cold that came from the river basin caused a lot of deaths," Gochoogiin says, adding: "Even live animals were lying on the ground, and their ears were completely frozen."

Individuals, some foreign governments and several relief agencies have provided cash, but Mongolian officials complain that it is difficult to capture the world's attention when the crisis involves dying animals in a remote nation.

Juergen Weyand, an official from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says many families will have exhausted their food stocks by April or May and need food assistance. Even more desperately needed is the cash for herders to buy new animals.

The crisis is all the more difficult for a nation emerging from a 65-year history as a Soviet satellite. As post-communist reformers privatized the economy over the past decade, many urban dwellers, suddenly able to buy and sell animals, returned to their ancestral trades as herders. But many newcomers have proved ill prepared to handle a winter of this severity (the last one this severe hit in 1964-65).

One herder, Lham, says if she had had an extra yurt, she could have saved the small animals from freezing. But subsistence farming does not permit extras. In a nearby yurt, a herder named Gambaa sits on a low bed while his brother's wife, Gereltuya, feeds dried horse droppings into the fire. Gereltuya serves tea without the traditional milk -- there is none since the winter.

This winter, the two families traveled north from the middle Gobi Desert because the winter was so severe there. Too many families were grazing in one place, and there was not enough grass. But in the high Mongolian steppes, Gambaa fears the weather will take a further toll, as the blizzards of spring kill more of his already weakened herd.