How would you feel about keeping a goat or two in your living room? Every night, Bayankhand Myagmar shares her one-room home with her husband, son, daughter, and some cold and hungry goats.
This traditional herder family is caught up in Mongolia’s dzud – a hot, dry summer followed by an extremely cold winter. Temperatures can fall as low as -60C at night.
First, the summer drought means there is not enough grass and hay stocks are low. The animals get weak from hunger and the bitterly cold winter finishes them off.
That’s why Bayankhand carries her frailest goats inside her traditional tent, or ger. Without her help, they risk night-time death from starvation and exposure.
A tragedy for herder families
Mongolia’s ancient herding tradition is still the backbone of the economy, supporting around a third of its population.
The country is also the world’s second largest producer of cashmere. Its three million people look after approximately 45 million animals.
Yet dzuds happen every few years and in each one, families have lost livestock – sometimes their whole herd.
Bayankhand has already lost 400 of her 700 cows, sheep and goats.
“If they get weak and die in front of my eyes, it’s very, very hard,” she says.
“I feel so sorry for them. I tried to save them but I couldn’t.”
Mrs Dogoonoo has fared even worse: she lost 210 of her 230 animals this year.
She is trying everything to keep the rest of the herd alive and also brings the weakest animals, like the calf in the picture above, into her ger.
Financial help to save a way of life
The Myagmar and Dogoonoo households are among 5,100 families – 25,000 people in all – who are getting Red Cross support this year.
Those who are particularly vulnerable, such as families with older or disabled members, get food parcels and cash grants.
They can use the grants to meet their most pressing needs, usually paying for shelter, fuel and healthcare.
Other families will buy supplies they need. Hay and other animal fodder is often their first purchase.
“We prepared hay quite well for the winter and bought one ton of wheat, two tons of fodder. It all ran out.
“We also finished hay and fodder from the government,” Bayankhand said.
Keeping their livestock alive keeps the family going as well.
Without some financial support now, families could face bankruptcy and be forced to abandon their homes. People who lose their herds often end up living in gers in the slums of industrial cities.
When the worst happens
Khurelbaatar Tovuu lost all his animals in the last dzud in 2010 and moved to a ger in the district centre.
“We used to sell wool and cashmere at the market, and we had milk and yoghurt for our children from our animals,” Khurelbaatar said.
Now, he occasionally gets seasonal work slaughtering animals or helping other herders feed their weaker stock.
“My reputation has gone down,” he said. “People started treating me badly because I’m a poor man.”
To help, over 2,000 Mongolians like Khurelbaatar in slum areas get visits from over 780 Red Cross volunteers twice a month.
Volunteers assist them with whatever is needed, such as bringing food, medicine or warm clothes, or taking someone for medical treatment.
They also offer emotional support – many have not only lost their animals but also left friends and family behind to come to the city.
Support for long-term change
While dzuds are a natural phenomenon in Mongolia, the UN says that climate change is making them worse.
Future preparation for dzuds and other disasters will be essential. Thanks to people who support our work through the Disaster Fund, the British Red Cross will now work with the Mongolia Red Cross Society to help.
Simple steps such as storing hay where it can be reached in harsh winter conditions can make a big difference.
People will also be supported to learn new skills so they can supplement their income.
“Vocational training and small business development are an important part of our Mongolia emergency programme” says Dr Enkhjin Garid from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“It is not enough just to keep people alive for a few months; we also need to ensure that the herders have a secure livelihood in the future.”
- Support to the Mongolian herders is funded through the British Red Cross Disaster Fund
- Read more about how we’re helping in Mongolia
- Listen: Why is the Red Cross treating cows?
Photos: Mrs Dogoonoo – ©Hler Gudjonsson/ IFRC; Others – ©Benjamin Suomela/Finnish Red Cross