D-z-u-d spells "disaster" for Mongolian herders


June 10, 2010

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    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A cow or goat skull in the Gobi Desert. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Ever heard of a "dzud"? It's pronounced zuhd, and it's an extraordinarily harsh Mongolian winter -- the kind where temperatures plummet, animals freeze to death, and you can enter your house only through the roof because that's how high the snow is. Any Mongolian will tell you they're bad news.

The dzud during the winter of 2009-2010 was "a national catastrophe," according to Mercy Corps' Oidov Vaanchig, who's based in the capital of Ulan Bator. A shortage of grass during the preceding summer meant that herds of sheep, goats, camels, horses, and cows couldn't put on enough fat to get them through the winter. And herders didn't stock enough animal feed because the financial crisis cut into their cashmere sales. As a result, the unusually cold temperatures killed between 8 and 15 million animals. An estimated 45,000 people lost their entire herd.

All those rotting carcasses have been a problem. Herders were unable to bury the dead animals during the winter because the ground was frozen, and burning the carcasses is too risky in Mongolia's dry climate. Serious health problems could result if the rancid flesh is allowed to decay and permeate the water supply. Mercy Corps encouraged rural herders to partner with local veterinary clinics to clean up the carcasses before disease becomes rampant.

We are also training herders to diversify their income so they don't have to completely rely on their animals for survival. Participating herders learn how to sustainably manage pastures and produce vegetables and dairy products while developing business skills in accounting, marketing, and risk-management. We are trying to get herders to share information on commodity prices, and trade knowledge-based skills with each other.

Better access to loans and markets can mean more income for rural herders and ex-herders. And if herders become less vulnerable to nasty weather, maybe the next time you hear about a dzud, the news won't be so bad.