People in Mongolia are used to harsh winters. But this year the winter is even worse than usual: the country is in the grip of a ‘dzud’ (pronounced zood) – a hot, dry summer followed by a freezing, windy and snowy winter.
Temperatures average lower than -40° Celsius at night. Can you imagine?
The dzud is a double blow for Mongolians, who rely mostly on raising livestock. First, the grass and wheat that their cattle depend on dry up in the summer drought. Herders cannot collect and store enough food for their animals, leaving them weak and vulnerable.
Then in winter, the animals are unable to dig through the hard frozen snow to get enough to eat and, finally, die.
Problems for people follow – families run out of food, lose their livelihoods and use up their savings to survive.
Since January, the Red Cross has delivered food parcels, warm clothes and fuel to people caught in the dzud to help them cope. Today I am here to observe the distribution.
“WINTER STARTED IN AUGUST”
Oyunbatt lives just 30 kilometres from the nearest ‘soum’ (town) centre. But the wintry conditions and frozen rivers mean that it takes over an hour to reach the soum even in a 4×4.
Oyunbatt hasn’t visited the soum centre for over ten years because he is the only carer for his sister, who has severe physical and learning disabilities. In fact, he can barely leave his home to tend to his small herd of 20 animals.
Despite this, Oyunbatt welcomes the Red Cross when we visit to deliver food parcels for him and his sister.
“This winter’s dzud has been a challenge”, he said.
“Winter started almost on 20 August: the entire area was covered by snow at that time. We have enough food for the animals to last until February, but it is of low quality because last summer there was no green and mature grass.”
BURNING RUBBISH TO SURVIVE
Many herders lose all their animals during a dzud and their only option is to move their families to towns and search for casual labour. Many hope that, against the odds, they will earn enough money to buy new animals and resume their lives as herders.
In Darkhan, Mongolia’s second largest city, many such migrants live in the ‘ger’ district, a slum area of traditional round Mongolian tents known as ‘gers’ or ‘yurts’.
To support older people, single parent households and people with disabilities in the area, the Red Cross runs a social care project.
Batbukh, a 53-year-old man who lost his arm at 47, has been unable to find work since. He lives in a ger, heated by a small stove in the centre.
When we visit to deliver warm clothing, the heat from the stove is inviting but this is relative – a bucket of water is frozen at his feet.
Batbukh’s disability benefits – around £56 monthly – don’t cover his basic needs and in the winter buying fuel is critical. Some people have to resort to burning rubbish they have collected in the streets and suffer respiratory illness or worse.
He tells us that he goes to the Red Cross’ social care centre, which provides a refuge from the cold.
People can wash and do other personal tasks there, with assistance if needed. They also have the chance to learn vocational skills or simply to sit and talk to a friendly volunteer.
TRANSFORMING A GER
Today, however, Batbukh is getting felt insulation for his ger along with his regular food parcel and warm clothes.
He is keen to assist the volunteers in fixing the insulation to his ger’s roof and quickly begins giving them instructions. This kind of work is something he knows well from his life as a herder turned industrial worker – a common narrative in Mongolia.
As we get ready to leave, I am struck by how well the project is run. Then I see my Mongolian Red Cross colleagues’ frostbitten cheeks. They serve as a stark reminder of how harsh life in the dzud can be.