The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia Mongolia's herders are accustomed to cold, but the extreme conditions of the country's terrible winters, known as dzuds, killed countless livestock and livelihoods. Herders have had to adapt.
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The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia

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The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia

The Deadly Winters That Have Transformed Life For Herders In Mongolia

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mongolia is undergoing a dramatic change, and some of that change is driven by extreme weather. The country is tucked between China and Russia. It is a largely rural nation. And in Mongolia, harsh winter storms combined with a decade of drought have forced tens of thousands of herders to abandon their livelihoods. NPR's Above the Fray fellow Emily Kwong begins a three-part series on Mongolia's changing environment in the grassland steppe with a natural disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: The steppes of Mongolia are a vast, yellow-green grassland home to millions of grazing animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING AND BIRDS CHIRPING)

KWONG: But 19 years ago, Mongolian herder Oyutan Gonchig saw a very different scene. He rose at first light to check on his animals after a harsh winter storm.

OYUTAN GONCHIG: (Through interpreter) Everything was covered by white snow. There was no way to distinguish the sheep trails. And everywhere, there were corpses of dead animals.

KWONG: The herder lost his entire livelihood to a phenomenon Mongolians call dzud. Spelled D Z U D, dzud is a winter so harsh that animals die in masse. And it's often linked to drought in the summer. When grasses dry, animals grow thin. If the winter is harsh in any way, they don't make it.

GONCHIG: (Through interpreter) Some of the surviving animals were trying to find something to eat but couldn't. It was very difficult to see this.

KWONG: Mongolia weathered back-to-back dzud winters around the turn of the century and again in 2010, all against the backdrop of a drought linked to climate change. Twenty-one million animals died. It was a catastrophic era in a country where 1 in 4 people own livestock.

So the question for Oyutan - Mongolians go by their first names - became is this lifestyle even sustainable anymore? The whole community was talking about it with their voices and with their feet.

GONCHIG: (Through interpreter) Many migrated because it was just impossible to make a living. The winter and snow was too hard.

KWONG: So he left the steppe and moved to Ulaanbaatar in 2002. Mongolia's capital city saw a net inflow of 40,000 people that year. Dzud was a migration driver, shifting population from the countryside to urban centers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Mongolian).

KWONG: We're having this conversation inside Oyutan’s ger, perched on the northern edge of Ulaanbaatar. A ger is a circular tent, typical of semi-nomadic herders. But Oyutan is here to stay. He's a taxi driver now, married with four daughters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE OPERATING)

KWONG: Oyutan's mother, 70-year-old Tserenkhand Damba, breaks out her Soviet-style sewing machine, while two of his four children clamor to get in on this interview. They whisper a message into their dad's ear.

What is she whispering?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Whispering in Mongolian).

GONCHIG: (Speaking Mongolian).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

KWONG: Tell her we know how to milk cows and make good yogurt, they croon. The girls are growing up in the city but still have a relationship to the countryside. Eight-year-old Mungunsaran then breaks into song, treating my microphone like a karaoke machine.

MUNGUNSARAN: (Singing in Mongolian).

KWONG: She stops suddenly...

MUNGUNSARAN: (Crying).

KWONG: ...And starts crying because the tune reminds her of her mother, Oyutan's wife. The family hasn't seen her in months. She went to work in Japan at an ice cream factory after struggling to find a job in Ulaanbaatar.

Forging an economic livelihood out of environmental loss isn't easy. Oyutan says a lot of the rivers and creeks from his childhood have dried up.

GONCHIG: (Through interpreter) It is hard for rural people. We think it is maybe because of global warming.

KWONG: Greenhouse gas emissions have rendered Mongolia a drier, hotter place than it was 80 years ago, more prone to drought and more vulnerable to dzud. Dzud is also linked to overgrazing, as animals chew up the pasture land and degrade the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS BEEPING)

KWONG: We meet with Dr. Tungalag Ulambayar at sundown. The 55-year-old researcher led a disaster response team for the United Nations Development Programme during the 2010 dzud. Her colleagues in Geneva couldn't wrap their minds around dzud as a natural disaster. Shelters weren't destroyed. No one died.

TUNGALAG ULAMBAYAR: So it's not disaster, they said. And then we said, no, it's disaster because someone is losing their total livelihood, you know?

KWONG: Mongolia hasn't experienced this scale of dzud since 2010. And much has happened since then, from winter preparedness policy on the national level to trainings on the provincial level. Herders are trying to learn practices for sustainable rangeland management.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSEHEAD FIDDLE PLAYING)

KWONG: And they're being rewarded for those efforts. Around Lunar New Year, local officials honor the best herders in the country with home visits broadcast on national TV. In the Arkhangai province this winter, that distinction went to 44-year-old Nergui Davaajav. The career herder was showered with speeches and musical entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSEHEAD FIDDLE PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

KWONG: Feasting on roasted lamb to the thrums of horsehead fiddle music, Nergui sits in the middle of it all beaming. Preparing for the possibility of a bad winter has become a regular part of his summer routine.

NERGUI DAVAAJAV: (Through interpreter) Nature is unpredictable, as summer gets hotter and there's less rain. But if we prepare hay fodder, we can overcome such natural disasters. We don't have to be afraid.

KWONG: Basically, he builds a food reserve. He's determined to stay a herder for the rest of his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBS AND GOATS BLEATING)

KWONG: Snow did come to this region, but it wasn't a bad winter by any stretch. And if the sound of dzud is silence, the opposite of dzud is this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBS AND GOATS BLEATING)

KWONG: All across Mongolia this March, animals were giving birth.

OK, this pen is just full of lambs, like 100 lambs - just these tiny little cotton balls with brown heads, black heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBS AND GOATS BLEATING)

KWONG: The babies call to their parents, one generation to the next. There's baby goats, too. Nergui moves quietly among them. They follow like a cashmere-clad entourage as he helps the newborns stand up and feeds the adults by hand, touching each one. The work couldn't be more personal, both in moments of loss and in moments of life.

Emily Kwong, NPR News, Arkhangai, Mongolia.

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