A bitterly cold winter after a summer of drought has plunged herder families in Mongolia into a fight for survival in which they find themselves without livestock and enduring severe food shortages, Save the Children has warned.
The combination of the winter and summer extremes is known in Mongolia as a dzud, a natural phenomenon unique to the country that can be pitiless. Heavy snow and extreme cold follow a summer with hardly any precipitation, resulting in insufficient grazing pastures and the wiping out of livestock.
The herder families, noted Save the Children, were also struggling to afford basics such as school supplies, hygiene items and healthcare.
Currently 13 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces are experiencing the dzud.
Between 1940 and 2015, there were official "dzud declarations" made twice a decade. However, experts say dzuds have increased in frequency, with occurrences now happening annually.
This year, said Save the Children, winter temperatures in Mongolia dropped as low as -40° Celsius. That caused many animals that were already malnourished to perish due to starvation or freezing. The situation affected the livelihoods of nearly 200,000 households who make an income from herding goats, sheep, cattle, horses, yaks and camels. The dire situation in Mongolia is exacerbated by inflation. It skyrocketed in 2022.
As a result of the dzud, around 213,000 people, including 80,000 children, are now in need of humanitarian aid including food, access to health facilities, and hygiene items, Save the Children said. “During a dzud, children under five are at high risk of malnutrition, respiratory diseases, and injuries, as their caregivers struggle to afford attention and healthcare,” it added.
Climate experts said the fact that the frequency and severity of dzuds is increasing can be attributed to the climate crisis. Temperatures in Mongolia are rising twice as fast as the global average, with temperatures warming over 2°C and declines in rainfall reported between 1940 and 2015. A decrease in annual precipitation has led to the increased frequency of dzuds.
Save the Children described the dire straits of Delgerbat, 39, his wife and three children, who live in Ikh-Uul soum (village) in Zavkhan Province in western Mongolia. Delgerbat told how he had to take his son out of school to help him care for their livestock. About 40% of Mongolians rely on livestock for a living. He said: “The climate is very different from when I was a child. The summers are too hot, the winters too cold and less grass and plants are grown. When I was young the snow would have melted by this time and it would already be spring, but now spring comes so late.”
A dzud, said Save the Children, takes a psychological toll on children as they worry about their family members and animals. Delgerbat’s daughter Yesun, 13, added: “The dzud arrives when there is a lot of snow and no grass. My father and mother said to each other that they don't have money to buy grass. It is hard to watch our animals die.”
Myagmarsuren, nine years-old, lives in a village on the Mongolia-Russia border. He was cited as saying: “This year there was a lot of snow and the cattle got sick. One of my two beloved animals, a baby goat named Orgio, died. Orgio showed me a lot of affection and ate bread from my hand. When he recognised me, he would run up to me and bite my hand. It is terrible to see animals die.”
Bayan-Altai Luvsandorj, country manager and representative of Save the Children Japan’s Mongolia Programme, said: “Herder families urgently need support so they can purchase essential items such as food and medicine, and also animal fodder to save their livestock and protect their future livelihoods. Dzuds are becoming more common and more severe as a result of the climate change. The international community needs to provide humanitarian aid, but it also needs to support herder communities to adapt to climate change, in order to prevent future humanitarian disasters.”
Save the Children’s humanitarian response to the dzud is implemented with funding from the START Fund of the UK, the Humanitarian Fund of Save the Children International, Save the Children Japan and the Swiss Cooperation Office of the Embassy of Switzerland in Mongolia.