Aid agencies brace for devastating Mongolian 'dzud' this winter

Riders attend a spring horse racing event in Tsagaan Khutul, outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Rentsendorj Bazarsukh (Reuters)

By Terrence Edwards ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Global aid agencies are responding to a call for assistance by Mongolia as harsh winter weather raises fears for the safety and livelihoods of the country's traditional pastoralists, who have already been hit hard by a drought last year. Dry weather has scorched most of Mongolia's wheat crop and now mass animal deaths due to a freezing winter, locally known as "dzud", are threatening more pain for the country, where farming accounts for about 13 percent of the economy. The last dzud in 2009-2010 killed 9.7 million of the country's livestock, according to the National Emergency Agency of Mongolia. While the government has not yet declared the current winter a natural disaster, it has warned the situation could get worse. So far, a drop in temperatures to minus 55 Celsius (minus 67 Fahrenheit) has killed nearly 200,000 livestock. The weather and grazing conditions are already worse than they were in the previous dzud, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement, citing the Mongolian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. "Usually for the dzud, the most devastation is observed in March, April and May," Garid Enkhjin, national program coordinator for the IFRC in Mongolia, told Reuters. The IFRC said it has launched an emergency appeal for 834,000 Swiss Francs ($835,000) to assist 25,500 Mongolian herders, who are at risk of losing their livestock and livelihoods due to the extreme winter. Currently, 80 percent of Mongolia is under snow, making it difficult for nomadic families to travel along centuries-old pasture routes to find food for their livestock. Aggravating the situation is the fact that herders can live up to 50 kms (31 miles) from urban settlements and many are without cars. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has said it plans to provide trucks to get aid to families' doorsteps at some of the most-difficult-to-reach areas. "We want to relieve the burden of that last mile of distance to the most affected," Ben Hemingway, USAID's regional adviser, said on phone from Bangkok. In the worst affected districts, sheep and other livestock have started dying. Many herders are trying to sell their animals while they are still alive, leading to an oversupply of livestock that has driven down market prices. Although the death toll for animals so far is far less than in 2009, "the impact on the people is more or less the same", said Enkhjin. "Livelihoods will be impacted immediately and have devastating effects." ($1 = 0.9987 Swiss francs) (Reporting by Terrence Edwards; Editing by Himani Sarkar)