Terrence Edwards in Ulaanbaatar -
The small town of Uyanga Soum, hidden deep in the mountains of Mongolia’s Uvurkhangai province, was devastated by a severe winter (zud or dzud), in 2009 that wiped out 20% of the country’s entire livestock. Following a drought this past summer that ravaged crops, Batmunkh, owner of a herd of 1,000 cows, sheep and goats, worries this year could be even worse.
Although Mongolia is best known for its rich mineral deposits of coal, copper and gold, much of the population continues with centuries-old herding practices. Agriculture in Mongolia – which includes herding as well as crop growing, fishing and other agrarian trades – is the second most important sector in Mongolia's economy behind mining, and is a key part of the government’s strategy to diversify the economy. Mongolian companies involved in the production of cashmere goods and meat products such as all-natural dog food, for example, have received government assistance.
Even though the remote, landlocked country is counting on mining to lift the country's struggling economy, Mongolia's prime minister has made developing agriculture and the associated agro-industry a priority to protect against the swings in commodity prices. China's economic troubles have sent the prices of raw materials such as oil, coal and copper tumbling this year, with the International Monetary Fund warning on September 2 that this has raised the risks to economic growth around the world.
Batmunkh in Uyanga Soum is preparing for winter by sending out a small group of herders even further into the mountains to forage for food. He's sure that this year will see the return of the dreaded zud – what Mongolians call a disastrously cold winter that kills off huge swathes of livestock. The frigid temperatures, along with deep snow or thick ice that keeps animals from reaching the plants they eat, can devastate poorly prepared herders.
Severe drought conditions in the central and eastern parts of Mongolia during June and July devastated farms without access to irrigation. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that up to 80% of wheat crops were lost this year, with a base threat scenario of 30%. However, they won't know the full extent of the damage until the harvests are complete.
Jennifer Bielman, country director for the humanitarian agency Mercy Corps in Mongolia, says there has been a trend of zuds in winter following droughts in summer. But she also notes that zuds often occur when the livestock population explodes and pastures become overgrazed. “The zud is a shock that puts the system at a new equilibrium,” she says.
Climate change is also seen as part of the problem. Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, with average temperatures rising by 2.1°Celsius over the last 70 years, or three times faster than the rest of the world, according to the UNEP.
But inevitably another man-made phenomenon is partly to blame: government. Before 1990, when Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state that served as a buffer between the USSR and China, the state set quotas for the number of animals that a herder could own. The government no longer sets such quotas, but it is still expected to respond to zuds by delivering supplies such as animal fodder. However, the lack of a centralized system to rein in animal numbers seems to be creating a cycle of booms and busts. Despite the 8.5mn animals that died in the 2009-2010 zud, the herd population has steadily grown to what could possibly be its highest level ever. “Some will argue that the herd size is the problem, not the weather,” says Bielman. “I'm told the interim between zuds used to be longer [100 years ago]. The ten-year cycle seems to be shifting to a five-year cycle.”
The drought means expensive imports of wheat and vegetables from Russia and China are necessary to make up for the losses. And the huge number of livestock deaths will undoubtedly cause a spike in meat prices at the counter. However, herders like Batmunkh don’t expect to benefit from this.
Exporters, too, could be affected. Mongolia this year finalized an economic partnership agreement with Japan that puts zero tax on some goods, including meat. Products such as Japan's Kobe beef make Japan a difficult to foodstuff market to enter, but Mongolian meat producer Precom is hoping to corner a niche market for doting pet owners. “Our pet foods in Japan are more expensive, but within the more high-end market we are trying for a lower price while we build up our brand,” says Precom spokeswoman Munkhzaya Suvdmaa.
Suvdmaa says she is confident that Precom can avoid any disruption in the local meat market, but “it depends on how bad the zud gets”. Currently, herders are anxious to cull their herds and sell their meat to ease their burdens during winter, she says. “I think now is a good time to procure any raw materials to avoid any interruption for us.”
Although zuds are an inevitable part of herding, that doesn't mean there aren't precautions that can be taken. Officials of Mongolia's National Emergency Management Agency such as Badamdavga Tserennyam travel to rural towns to help herders prepare for and assist in their migration patterns. Tserennyam said herders were badly caught off guard by the zud in 2009, and that the deaths that followed were a result of poor preparations. “People now are better informed and better prepared than six years ago,” Tserennyam says.
Herders by next year will gain a technological advantage by using their cell phones to receive weekly local forecasts by text message from the Livestock Early Warning System (LEWS) that Mercy Corps has helped create. “Through that SMS system, we'll be able to make forecast information available to anyone,” says Bielman.
In addition to weather, herders can receive information such as the amount of plant cover and even estimates of the protein content of grazing lands, all using satellite technology and historical data. “LEWS gives a long-as-possible head start if a winter looks like it's going to be dangerous,” Bielman says.
Such technologies can reduce the risk, but Mongolians have a tough choice to make. Although the herding, nomadic lifestyle is a key part of the culture here, fewer young people are learning the trade. Instead, they're increasingly going off to college so that they can enter a white-collar profession, as Batmunkh has done for his two daughters. Last year, Batmunkh's eldest daughter, Sanjidmaa, graduated from university in Prague, and today works for auditor Ernst and Young in Ulaanbaatar. “I will never be herdsman, and neither will my sister,” says Sanjidmaa. “But I would be sad if there's no more herders in Mongolia. Who will continue this tradition? I have no idea.”
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