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The BBC's Jessica Williams
"It's been the worst drought in 60 years"
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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
Mongolia faces calamity
Mongolians face disaster after losing 2million livestock during the worst winter in 50 years
Mongolians face human and ecological disaster(image courtesy of Office of Mongolian PM)
In an exclusive interview with BBC News Online, Mongolia's Prime Minister, Rinchinnyam Amarjargal, says his country faces a human and ecological disaster.

What is the scale of the disaster?

Almost two million heads of animal have died. It is inevitable that many more will die during the harsh dry spring if we and the international community do not act efficiently. The total economic damage to the country over time may rise to over $1bn.

Mongolian Prime Minister meets with a herdsman
Prime Minister Rinchinnyam Amarjargal meets a herdsman
The last time the rural population of Mongolia was hit so badly by such a natural calamity occurred in the winter of 1944, when livestock- breeders lost almost 7.5m heads of livestock.

At present, 171 counties in 13 provinces of Mongolia are in the disaster-stricken zone.

These are the territories where almost one fifth of the entire population resides.

For most of them, the raising of cattle is the main form of the economy and source of income.

But the most alarming concern for my government is the moral wound that the nomadic families are suffering for the death of their herds - loved and revered domestic animals.

They feel like executives of a once-flourishing company after a sudden bankruptcy. This bankruptcy is caused by nature which no one can manage.

Two million dead: Rotting carcasses threaten to cause disease
Rotting carcasses threaten to cause disease
It is still too early to assess the full extent all of the damage the disaster is causing, for the impact of the "zud" - the Mongolian word for severe winter disaster - is to be felt directly by herders during several months to come, while the negative consequences on the national economy is something that will affect us for another four to five years - and maybe even longer.

Have you visited the areas of your country which have been hardest hit by winter?

I was in Dundgovi province in the south of the country, where the disaster claimed the largest toll of 484,800 dead animals - 23% of its total livestock.

Herders feel like executives of a once-flourishing company after a sudden bankruptcy

This is a big drama for the rural population, to whom we are trying to extend aid despite many problems including logistical ones.

Mongolia's territory is large, and it is not that easy to deliver assistance to remote localities hit by the winter.

Your government launched an appeal for international assistance in early February. Are you satisfied with the response?

We are getting responses to our appeal for international assistance in different forms from foreign governments, international organisations, NGOs, and individuals, and I would like to take this opportunity to express a deep gratitude of Mongolians for these actions of support and concern.

We do appreciate the sizeable efforts by the International Red Cross in this matter, and we feel that the role of the world major media agencies, including BBC World and BBC World Service, is important in triggering the awareness of the international community of the grave situation in my country.

Given the scope of the damage caused to the country's economy, it would be extremely difficult for Mongolia to cope on its own with all negative consequences of the disaster.

Therefore, our call for further assistance remains.

One herdsman told the BBC that he had travelled 400km (150 miles) over a six-month period in search of grass for his horses. What preparations did you make in advance of winter?

The last decade has been a favourable period for the country's animal husbandry, when the farmers managed to increase the livestock population to almost 33m.

The current situation in this sector signalled one drawback in the system - that is poor disaster management under such circumstances.

Everybody, including the government structures, are drawing lessons from this.

Century-long traditions and expertise of herders to run their economy are something we cherish and respect.

But the current ordeals indicate the need to review advantages and disadvantages of extensive livestock breeding.

What is being done to get staples like meat, milk and cheese - as well as warm clothing - to the herdsmen and women who are dispersed over a very wide area?

Concerning the food supply for those in the affected territories, they will certainly need a considerable assistance in this regard.

The health of these people, in particular of the children and elders, is something of great concern. With temperatures going up, the threat of ecological damage is looming large. The huge quantity of dead animal carcasses is the cause of potential contamination of water and soil.

Therefore, some of the relief being delivered should include food products. The health of these people, in particular of the children and elders, is something of great concern.

With temperatures going up, the threat of ecological damage is looming large. The huge quantity of dead animal carcasses is the cause of potential contamination of water and soil.

Is the fact that many Mongolians are nomadic a factor in this crisis?

The nomadic way of life of many Mongolians does not matter in the weakness of humans against the natural disaster.

Mongolians have lived this way for thousands of years. There are several other factors, instead.

Favourable weather conditions over the last years have deceived the local government officials and the herdsmen.

During the communist era, the herdsmen relied on the government's centralised fodder supply.

They have not yet learned to survive on their own in the conditions of private ownership of the herds

Is your government acting to reduce the reliance of many Mongolians on agriculture and livestock?

There is no doubt that animal husbandry will remain one of the major sectors of the economy.

What my government intends to do is to transform the nomadic form into a farm-based industry and the extensive husbandry form into an intensive one.

Do you think that the transition from a communist economy to a market economy has worsened the situation?

It would be too na´ve to blame the current political and economic structures in Mongolia for aggravating the situation.

On the contrary, under this system, Mongolian rural people have become the owners of their economies.

The size of the livestock population is unprecedented, thanks to the reforms in the agriculture sector.

A jeep struggles to get through snow on the bitterly cold steppe
A jeep struggles through snow
Mongolia's open door policy has resulted in establishing wider contacts with the outside world, unimaginable just a decade ago.

We feel the concern and support of our old and new friends is crucial at this moment.

Mongolia has a relatively small population, nearly 3 million, covering an area half the size of India. At least 20% are directly affected by the mass death of their livestock. Is there a danger of economic migration of Mongolians to other countries?

Mongolian family in effort to save dying livestock
Mongolian family try to save dying livestock
Yes, it is a hard time for Mongolia, and in particular for those at risk in the zud-stricken areas, and we are forced to face a host of unforeseen economic and social problems because of the current disaster in addition to those we are encountering on our way to a democratic and free society.

The people of Mongolia and its government are doing their best to overcome the difficulties.

No doubt, it will be very painful, demanding a lot of human resources and funding.

But, I don't expect this will force my fellow countrymen, even those from the territories under trouble, to leave in mass their country

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13 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Mongolian herdsmen face starvation
16 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Harsh winter hits Mongolian livestock
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