Mirva Helenius

More inclusive communications, visual storytelling & futures

Silent & deadly

- extreme winter ‘dzud’ in Mongolia

Mornings in mountainous northern Mongolia takes one's breath away - both because of the beauty of the snow-covered landscape and also due to air so cold that it hurts to inhale. Against the winter wonderland of white mountains and valleys, the traditional tent-like gers hide in plain sight, revealed only by smoke emerging from the chimneys.

The rising sun paints the snowy scenery with pastel colours, but as dawn gives way to daylight, the sight soon turns sickening. On the ground lie dozens of dead livestock, frozen and half-eaten. Smaller animals, sheep and goats are gathered in piles, but the heavy carcasses of cows and horses are left wherever they happened to collapse, becoming a feast for carrion feeders and scavengers.

"All these animals have perished because of Dzud, the white death. Starvation weakens them, and they couldn't withstand the freezing weather," explains Nyamdelgev Delzod, who has lived in the Khuvsgul region in northern Mongolia all his life and worked in the local administration for over a decade.

Dzud is a local term for severe winter conditions. This slow onset but deadly disaster is unique to Mongolia, caused by the double impact of dry summers and harsh winters.

During summer the lack of rain leads to insufficient grass in pastures and the low production of hay, leaving herders unable to collect and store enough food for their animals for the winter. By the time winter arrives the animals will be too weak and vulnerable to survive the heavy snow, strong winds and extreme temperatures.
More than a million animals died during last year's Dzud, and similar impacts have already started to show this year. By 7 February 2017, over 46,000 animals have perished from starvation and cold.

"Khuvsgul province in northern Mongolia was one of the worst-affected by last year's Dzud, and this year the disaster is hitting us for the second time in a row. Many herders, who lost a big portion of their livestock last year are now at risk of losing even more animals, and with them, their only income and way of living", says Nyamdelgev Delzod.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened to us without help from the Red Cross. Animals are our only livelihood, and we need to keep them alive. If they all die, what will happen to us?", Oyunjargal asks.

The family is now trying to save their remaining animals, taking special care of the pregnant, newborn or otherwise weak and vulnerable ones. Despite their efforts they have already lost some animals since January this year, and are worried that more will die as the harsh weather conditions will continue for several months.

"In the spring the animals normally give birth, which makes them even more vulnerable. Several sheep have already had miscarriages. This means we will not have new animals, and many more might die", Oyunjargal says.

Oyunjargal Munkhjargal says she still loves the life of a herder, but the death of their livestock is making her question the future of this way of life.  Like so many others, she is hoping to migrate to one of the country's urban centres, such as the capital Ulan Bator, where hundreds of thousands of former herders are struggling to survive in extreme poverty.

“I know life in the city is hard, but I'm getting desperate. Dzud is impacting my family, not only now, but also for years to come. I don't know how we can ever recover. If we find a way, I want to move to the city to ensure education and a better future for my daughter. However, at the moment we don’t have any options. All we can do now is to try to survive.”

Harsh winter conditions are of course nothing new to the Mongolian herders, but Dzud is something so extreme that it leaves even the most experienced herders perplexed.

Munkhbat Bazarragchaa (48) started herding with his mother when he was just seven years old, and has been doing it ever since.

"I know each and every one of my animals individually, and I take good care of them. We work all day and even at night to keep them alive, warm and fed. But still there is nothing I can do to stop them from dying. This year the white Dzudhas already taken more than ten of my animals", he says.

The family has a livestock of around 60 sheep and goats left, but they are running dangerously low on hay and fodder.

"Most of my animals are already exhausted. They keep digging the snow to find food, but days of digging in the hard snow injures the legs. Some of them are too weak to walk. I'm afraid that I will lose many more in the coming months", Bazarragchaa says.

Bazarragchaa says he can see the changes in climate and environment in Mongolia. Dzud used to come only once a decade, but now it keeps happening more often, and the impacts last a lot longer.

"The life of a Mongolian herder has always been hard, but being hit by this kind of disaster again and again is making many herders desperate. Despite the hardship I'm sad to see the younger generations abandoning this nomadic lifestyle and moving to towns and cities", Bazarragchaa says.

Bazarragchaa and his wife have sent their two boys to attend a government boarding school in the nearest town, more than 60 kilometres away from their home. Because of the harsh weather conditions, heavy snowfall and lack of paved roads or means of transportation, the family has not seen the boys since their school started in October last year.

In partnership with Save The Children, the Red Cross will provide psychosocial support to 2,000 children living in school dormitories away from their herder parents to help them cope with the disaster.

Bazarragchaa wants his children to get an education and have options in life. However, he hopes that at least one of the sons will return and continue herding.

"I can't imagine Mongolia without animals. This way of life has been inherited from our ancestors and has been practised for thousands of years. Even if I only have one animal left, my responsibility is to take care of it. For me this is the only way of life."

For the International Red Cross & Red Crescent, Mongolia, 2017. 

Cinematography by Benjamin Suomela. My role: directing, interviews, producing, support in editing.