In this photo released by Mongolian Red Cross Society, a...

In this photo released by Mongolian Red Cross Society, a Mongolian herdsman prepares wood to provide heating for the family ger past near a member of the Mongolian Red Cross Society in Ulaangom Soum, Uvs province of Mongolia, on March 1, 2024. An extreme weather phenomenon known as the dzud has killed more than 7.1 million animals in Mongolia this year, more than a tenth of the country’s entire livestock holdings, threatening herders’ livelihoods and way of life. Credit: AP

HANOI, Vietnam — An extreme weather phenomenon known as the dzud has killed more than 7.1 million animals in Mongolia this year, more than a tenth of the country’s entire livestock holdings, endangering herders’ livelihoods and way of life.

Dzuds are a combination of perennial droughts and severe, snowy winters and they are becoming harsher and more frequent because of climate change. They are most associated with Mongolia but also occur in other parts of Central Asia.

Many deaths, especially among malnourished female animals and their young, occur during the spring, which is the birthing season.

Herding is central to Mongolia’s economy and culture — contributing to 80% of its agricultural production and 11% of GDP.

In Mongolian, the word dzud means disaster. Dzuds occur when extremely heavy snows cause impenetrable layers of snow and ice to cover Mongolia’s vast grasslands, so the animals cannot graze and they starve to death. Drought at other times of the year means there’s not enough forage for the animals to fatten up for the winter.

Dzuds used to occur once in a decade or so but are becoming harsher and more frequent because of climate change. This year’s dzud is the sixth in the past decade and the worst yet. It followed a dzud last year and a dry summer. Snowfall was the heaviest since 1975.

The toll on Mongolia’s herds has soared, with 2.1 million head of cattle, sheep and goats dead in February, rising to 7.1 million in May, according to state media.

In this photo released by Mongolian Red Cross Society, a...

In this photo released by Mongolian Red Cross Society, a Mongolian herdsman stands near his livestock in Ulaangom Soum, Uvs province of Mongolia, on March 1, 2024. An extreme weather phenomenon known as the dzud has killed more than 7.1 million animals in Mongolia this year, more than a tenth of the country’s entire livestock holdings, threatening herders’ livelihoods and way of life. Credit: AP

Thousands of families have lost over 70% of their entire herds. And the total death toll may increase to 14.9 million animals, or nearly 24% of Mongolia’s total herd, said Deputy Prime Minister S. Amarsaikhan, according to state media.

Nomadic herding is so vital for resource-rich Mongolia’s 3.3 million people that its constitution refers to the country’s 65 million camels, yaks, cattle, sheep, goats and horses as its “national wealth.”

Livestock and their products are Mongolia’s second-largest export after mining, according to the Asian Development Bank.

“The loss of the livestock has dealt an irreversible blow to economic stability and intensified the people’s already dire circumstances,” Olga Dzhumaeva, the head of the East Asia delegation at International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent or IFRC, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

High costs for fuel, food and fodder made the situation much worse for herders like Gantomor, a 38-year-old herder in mountainous Arkhangai province. Like many Mongolians, he goes by one name.

Warnings of a dzud prompted Gantomor to sell his entire flock of about 400 sheep. He only kept his sturdier yaks and horses, hoping that that he’d be able to take them to pastures that wouldn’t be as badly affected, said his sister-in-law, Gantuya Batdelger, 33, a graduate school student.

Even after spending more than $2,000 to transport the remaining 200-odd animals 200 kilometers (124 miles) to a place he thought would be safer, he didn’t escape the dzud. Seventy yaks died and 40 horses left the herd, leaving him with less than 100. “By selling the sheep, (the family) had wanted to save some money. But they spent all of it,” said Batdelger.

Batdelger's brother-in-law was better off than others. A friend had all but 15 of her 250 yaks die.

The Mongolian countryside was filled with hundreds of carcasses, piling up in the melting snow, she said.

Disposing of the carcasses quickly to ensure they don’t spread diseases is another big challenge. By early May, 5.6 million, or nearly 80%, of the dead animals had been buried.

Warmer temperatures can bring forest fires or dust storms. Heavy runoff from melting snow increases the risk of flash floods, especially in urban areas. Many pregnant stock, weakened from the winter, lose their offspring, sometimes because they cannot adequately feed them, said Matilda Dimovska, the UNDP’s resident representative in Mongolia.

“It’s really devastating to see, how (the baby animals) cry for food,” she said.

The dzud is a perfect example of how interlinked climate change is with poverty and the economy, she said. Herders who lose their herds often migrate to cities like the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but find few opportunities for work.

“They enter into the cycle of poverty,” she said.

The increasingly routine nature of the dzuds has raised the need for Mongolia to develop better early warning systems for natural disasters, said Mungunkhishig Batbaatar, the country director of the nonprofit People in Need.

Combining technology with community-level approaches works best: “It is estimated that countries with limited early warning coverage have disaster mortality that is eight times higher than countries with substantial to comprehensive coverage,” he said.

Meanwhile, international aid has been “very insufficient,” said Dzhumaeva. An IFRC appeal launched in mid-March has not reached even 20% of its target of 5.5 million Swiss Francs ($6 million). Budgets strained by urgent responses to crises like Ukraine or Gaza are a factor, she said, “But this leaves little room for addressing the devastating effects of dzud in Mongolia.”

Mongolia needs help but it also needs to adapt to dzuds with strategies such as better weather forecasting and measures to stop overgrazing. Herders need to diversify their incomes to help cushion the impact of livestock losses.

Khandaa Byamba, 37, a camel herder who lives in Dundgobi province in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert said in an online interview that she has learned from her elders and also the hard experience of repeated dzuds.

Seeing early signs of yet another dzud, she let her camels wander, relying on their own instincts to find pastures. The family earlier decided to just herd camels to cope with climate change, drought and deteriorating pastures that have been turning into deserts. Khandaa Byamba's husband followed the animals for the first 100 kilometers (62 miles) while she stayed behind with some younger animals.

As the snow piled up, other families reported losing scores of animals. But after the winter, most of her camels returned. They only lost three adult camels and 10 younger ones in their herd of more than 200.

“This year has been the hardest,” she said.

___

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