November-December 2023 were almost unprecedentedly harsh months in Mongolia: most of the country was under a massive layer of snow, the thickness of which reached up to 50-60 centimetres in many regions. At the same time, mid-December was also frosty, with temperatures in some parts of the country dropping to -50 degrees Celsius.
In addition to weather threats and challenges traditional for most countries and peoples of the world – such as failures in the work of transport, industrial enterprises, a sharp jump in injuries among the population, hypothermia, etc., in Mongolia, due to the unique and specific traditions of animal husbandry dominating in it, there is another – and probably the most dramatic – problem associated with such weather conditions – the so-called “white dzud”.
“White dzud” in the country is referred to as a mass die-off of livestock caused by frost and a significant thickness of snow cover, which prevents animals from feeding on grass hidden under the snow. This phenomenon often reaches catastrophic proportions for the part of the country’s population that retains its centuries-long adherence to the nomadic way of life (more than 15 per cent of the country’s population): in some years, white dzud has killed many millions of cattle.
The weather realities of this winter are quite alarming in this context: at the beginning of December 2023, it was reported that more than 80 per cent of pasture areas in Mongolia were in serious danger, and this figure reached 90 per cent in mid-December.
The government was very quick to respond to the weather, with recommendations from a special government agency on slaughtering norms before the onset of frost. When the intense rainfall started, a number of local authorities distributed hay to herders, which would allow some livestock to feed in conditions where the grass cover was inaccessible. However, in terms of their effect, scale and long-term sustainability, these measures can hardly be considered complete: this winter has again raised the question of the need for more comprehensive government involvement and support for herders in Mongolia’s globally unique nomadic pastoralism. Hay and fodder are scarce in the country, and increasing the rate of “slaughter” is not favourable for small family farms in market conditions: the more head that reach the market, the lower the rate of profit.
At the end of 2022, Mongolia launched the so-called “Food Revolution” initiative aimed at increasing domestic food production. Its results in 2023 were, admittedly, very successful: the Mongolian Ministry of Agriculture announced the largest harvest of cereals and vegetables in the country’s history, based on the results of the harvesting campaign. The initiative’s success in increasing meat exports, which had been negligible in previous years, is also notable. However, the programme has neglected fodder crops, and there has been no significant progress in their production (let alone processing into fodder). As a result, with the critical danger of the White Dzud, almost the entire national herd was once again without hay and fodder. This forced Mongolia to suspend meat exports for at least a month.
Livestock losses in Mongolia are particularly widespread due to, among other things, the lack of population control. Most environmental experts and livestock breeders have stated in recent decades that the maximum “load” on Mongolian pastures has been exceeded more than twice – the number of livestock at the end of autumn 2023 exceeded 70 million heads with an estimated ceiling of 30-35. This circumstance plays its role in increasing the scale of the calamity associated with grazing – however, not only with “white”, but also with those caused by drought, diseases, etc.
One might assume that the deaths of millions of cattle are only food-related for Mongolia. However, this is a colossal misconception: the problem has a broad social and economic manifestation. An analysis of the “waves” of false urbanisation in Mongolia conducted by the author of this article in 2022 showed a direct link between these “waves” and rural livestock deaths: for nomads, even in the 21st century, livestock is their main wealth and means of subsistence, without which they are almost doomed to starvation. Desperate people who have lost their livestock inevitably flock to the city, thereby increasing the pressure on the already overburdened capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Without access to heating, they are forced to heat their yurts with improvised combustible materials, worsening the environmental situation in the city. Also, the wave of new settlers in the capital city remains largely unemployed, which also creates new problems for the city’s already bewildered leadership. Solving or limiting these problems requires significant investment from the city and national budgets. Other tragic factors associated with the Dzud include increased poverty, famine, and localised epidemics of plague and other infections.
“White Dzud has always caused a number of problems for the population of Mongolia: however, its destructive nature was not so widespread before, during the Mongolian People’s Republic era, because of the active participation of the state in the life of pastoralists, also because of the dominance of public and state ownership in this sector. In the socialist era, hay and fodder were regularly distributed to state farms on a nationwide scale, and fodder crop farming was developed and stimulated according to the needs of livestock production. Pasture pressure was constantly monitored, and the process of meat procurement was controlled. There was also a well-developed division of labour, which did not require each individual family to master the intricacies of traditional nomadic herding. A certain part of the herd had warm pens, most of the herd was served by veterinarians and supplied with vaccines, which were even produced on the territory of the MPR. All this significantly mitigated the scale of the dzud and levelled its effects, both social and economic. However, in the early 1990s, privatisation took place in this sector, leading to the dominance of small family farms in the country’s livestock sector, which were unable to respond to such challenges, both in terms of finances and expertise.
Of course, the borrowing of old experiences is only possible to a certain extent: for modern Mongolia it is important not only to solve the problem of “dzud”, but also to preserve the traditional nomadic animal husbandry culture, which is dear to its people. Experiments of transition to a sedentary lifestyle and economy, implemented with varying degrees of enthusiasm in Mongolia’s socialist past, are hardly compatible with this important task. Nevertheless, in the author’s opinion, the solution of this problem requires clear attention – both of the Mongolians themselves (government agencies and the private sector) and of their foreign partners, who can offer some assistance and new solutions.
Boris KUSHKHOV, Department of Korea and Mongolia, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.