Widespread starvation feared in brutal Mongolia winter

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The Independent Online

From one isolated family of nomads to another, the grisly sight is the same across Mongolia's vast and frozen Gobi Desert and nearby mountains.

From one isolated family of nomads to another, the grisly sight is the same across Mongolia's vast and frozen Gobi Desert and nearby mountains.

Thickly furred, frozen carcasses of livestock are stacked waist-high near the traditional tents of their herders. More animals lie where they fell in bare pastures, all victims of the country's coldest winter in 30 years.

The toll is staggering.

An estimated 1.8 million herd animals, or about one of every 15 in the nation, have died, affecting a fifth of Mongolia's 2.6 million people, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.

The toll could rise to 5 million animals, the office warns, and if more aid from other countries is not provided by April or May a half million Mongolians could be desperately short of food.

The crisis strikes as Mongolia, which broke away from Soviet domination 10 years ago, is still struggling with its difficult transition to democracy and a free-market economy.

"After June, we will be very hungry," said Tserendorj, a 73-year-old nomadic woman inside her family "ger," the round felt tent that is the traditional, portable home of Mongolia's nomads. Like many Mongolians, she uses only one name.

"But we are old people," she said, cradling a naked child in her lap. "Our lives are over anyway. Our worry is for these kids and how they will live."

Her family of 10, living in two gers in the Gobi, was prosperous before the weather crunch. Now, they are poor.

In a land of few roads and phone lines, Mongolia's nomads - about 30 percent of the population - live the simple life of their great-great-grandparents. Cattle, yak, two-humped camels, horses, goats and sheep provide everything from food to barter goods to transportation.

But the cold has decimated the thin grasslands that the livestock rely on. And nomads who moved their herds to unaffected areas have overcrowded the pastures there, devastating those grasslands as well.

Harsh weather is hardly unusual in Mongolia. In the Gobi, temperatures can range from 40 below in the winter to 115 above in the summer. The wind never stops blowing across the pebbly, gray-brown sand.

But even by Mongolian standards the past year has been rough.

First came a drought last summer. That, and an infestation of rodents, killed off much of the grasses that sustain the livestock. Then severe blizzards hit early, in September, freezing many animals and leaving so much snow that the survivors couldn't graze.

The widespread livestock deaths have many nomadic families struggling. The sick can't get to doctors or obtain medicine. Pneumonia is on the rise. The price of meat has soared.

Nomadic children, who often learn to ride horses and camels at a very early age, often can't travel to their schools many miles across the plains.

Because the nomads live such a spartan life to begin with, there is little fat to trim.

A traditional nomad breakfast, for example, consists of flour biscuits and tea with milk. Now there is no milk for the tea because the domestic animals that have survived often don't have milk for their own young. Some nomads even use the dry milk from relief groups to feed newborn livestock.

Toughened by their hard lives, many nomads show little emotion over their plight. But the unusually bad times are breaking some down.

In hard-hit Dundgobi province, about 250 miles south of the capital, Ulan Bator, Chunt, a 65-year-old nomad who looks 95, is openly devastated by his losses.

Blind since last year, Chunt's lower eyelids droop like a bloodhound's. His long button-on-the-side jacket, the traditional garment called a "hantaaz," is a shabby black. Little green socks fluttered on a line rigged over the stove in the center of the ger, its walls covered with the family's possessions.

Kneeling and smoking a long jade and silver pipe, Chunt recalled how he once had 550 sheep, goats, cows and horses - how he was once a prosperous man.

Now he has 80 sheep and goats.

"I don't know what to do," he mumbled, unaware of the child playing at his knee. "I used to depend on the animals; now I have nothing."

In an interview, Mongolian Prime Minister Renchinnyamin Amarjargal said restocking the nomads' livestock will cost the poor nation as much as $10m. He appealed for aid.

The World Bank is contributing $1.33m, and the United Nations, the United States and other countries have promised help.

But time may be running out.

"The situation will continue to worsen. The weakened animals will die in big numbers," said Amgaa Oyungerel, spokeswoman for the Mongolian Red Cross.

"By May, the herders will face food shortages. The health problem is also alarming, with people physically exhausted and psychologically wounded. They are very vulnerable."