Death of millions of livestock in Mongolia provokes action towards better resource management

Rethinking land management techniques to mitigate the effects of weather-related disasters

Over the last decade, IDRC has been implementing a system of natural resource co-management in Mongolia that has helped make herding and agriculture more sustainable and resilient in the face of dzuds.

By Rebekah Mintzer, MediaGlobal

Rethinking land management techniques to mitigate the effects of weather-related disasters

A recent weather-related disaster in Mongolia, called a “dzud” has caused the death of millions of livestock and negatively impacted the livelihoods of the many nomadic herders in Mongolia. As a result, many UN agencies, including International Labor Organization (ILO) and NGO partners, have issued a Consolidated Appeal (CAP) in order to obtain aid for the affected populations. Development organizations like Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC) have contributed significantly by rethinking land management techniques in Mongolia in order to mitigate the effects of the dzuds.

A dzud occurs when a summer drought is followed by a winter of heavy snow and freezing temperatures. This results in a lack of plant growth, and therefore a lack of fodder for livestock. This 2009-2010 dzud has impacted 800,000 Mongolians by causing the death of about 17 percent of the country’s livestock and counting. The Mongolian government has given 15 of 21 provinces disaster status.

The CAP requests a total of $18,150,794 in order to provide for the immediate, medium-term, and long-term needs of affected herders and their families. This includes fulfilling basic needs for food security, water and sanitation, as well as for health support, both physical and psychological. Those who have lost their homes may require help with resettlement and finding new ways of making a living.

There is an urgent need to prevent more herders from losing their livelihoods completely. “The largest amount requested is for support to herders who have viable herds – but who will need urgent assistance with fodder and veterinary support over the coming period, Rana Flowers, UN Resident Coordinator for Mongolia told MediaGlobal in an e-mail. “By supporting these herders we are stopping further groups moving into destitution and requiring heightened food aid and other support.”

Another challenge that the CAP seeks to address is the migration of herder families to towns and cities due to the loss of livelihoods in the dzud. Flowers and the UN estimate that at least 20,000 herders will be migrating to find employment and basic services that will likely be difficult to get. According to Flowers, the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN HABITAT) will be tracking the migration patterns. “Then other relevant UN agencies will look at the provision of outreach health services and education; access to pre-school and primary school education; employment and retraining, as well as food and nutrition needs,” she said.

Although dzuds themselves cannot be prevented, there are certainly ways to better prepare populations to sustain them through the disaster. IDRC has been implementing a system of natural resource co-management in Mongolia for the last decade that has helped make herding and agriculture more sustainable and resilient in the face of dzuds. In their co-management system, the herders of Mongolia created community associations for resource management and collaborated with local government officials in order to create agreements and policy about how land should be used. This prevents overgrazing in the grasslands as well as over-cultivation of the land.

Dr. Hijaba Yhkanbai of Mongolia’s Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Tourism has been the leader of the project in Mongolia. “From interviews conducted during the recent surveys, it becomes apparent that many herders understand better now that co-management is important for sustainable agriculture,” he told MediaGlobal in an e-mail.

“The survey indicates, for example, that 63% of respondent herders in Khotont sum [an area that sustained losses of up to 60 to 70 percent of livestock in a given herd in the dzud] state that there are advantages of co-management, including pasture shifting and rotation. These practices reduce the pressure on the grasslands.” The same survey indicated that to some extent, co-management had prevented livestock loss in the dzud in the affected areas.

The IDRC project has encouraged communities participating in the project to find alternative livelihoods that may be somewhat less vulnerable to climate conditions than simply herding. “Exploring additional income sources is important as this can improve the herders’ livelihoods, reduce poverty, and reduce pasture degradation, which indirectly solves ecological problems,” said Ronnie Vernooy a Senior Program Specialist in Rural Poverty and Environment at IDRC who has been leading the group’s work on community resource management in Mongolia.

Vernooy also explained that revolving funds have been set up through the community groups in order to help members in need and fund activities to support women’s income generation. Women have been given an equal voice in co-management decision-making and resource management, as they are also profoundly affected by dzuds.


Mongolian herders from Deluin offered IDRC's Ronnie Vernooy a baby camel, named Happiness, and three wild horses - Lightning, Quebec, and Harmony - in recognition of his work on behalf of their community. Here, Vernooy meets Quebec and Harmony.

Published: 05 Jul 2010

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