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Struggling to survive Mongolia's freezing winter

29 March 10 08:58 GMT

In Mongolia, what aid agencies are calling a slowly unfolding disaster is underway as extreme cold continues to devastate nomadic herder communities. As the BBC's Chris Hogg reports, about 10% of the country's livestock has perished and thousands of families have lost everything.

It takes about a day to drive from the capital, Ulan Bator, to the worst-affected part of the country, an area called Uvurkhangai where almost a million animals have died.

It is supposed to be spring in Mongolia, but you would not know it.

On the side of a hill in a wind so cold it bites, the Galsaikhan family are feeding their animals.

Some of the sheep and goats are so weak they collapse before they can reach the feeding tins.

The herders' youngest son, just five years old, picks up those that have fallen to the ground and finds them a space at the feeding tins so they can get at the food.

Usually by now tufts of grass would be poking through the snow for the livestock to graze, but not this year.

'Lost everything'

Mongolia is suffering the worst winter most people here can remember.

Last summer a drought made life for the herders hard enough, but weeks of unbearably cold weather with temperatures dropping as low as minus 40C have wrought real damage.

The government says more than four-and-a-half million livestock have died.

Mongolians call this a dzud - a prolonged freeze after a summer drought that destroys the grazing areas.

The Galsaikhan family have lost 800 of their 900 animals.

Chumedtseren, the mother, says the mornings are the worst. "Every day when we wake up we have the same fear. How many have died overnight?"

She says sometimes she and her husband are frightened to go to check.

"If we lose all our animals we'll have lost everything," she says.

The frozen carcasses of the animals lie where they have dropped, several of them in the pen where the others seek shelter from the wind.

The herders' cattle, their sheep, their goats are their cash. They use them to pay for everything from food to medicine to schooling for their children.

So for the family losing so many is disastrous.

Renchan, Chumedtseren's husband, says the greater pressure at the moment is mental, not physical.

"Our only source of livelihood is slipping away. If we lose all our livestock how will we keep going?"

Mental health fears

The harsh conditions have been affecting 19 of Mongolia's 21 provinces since last December.

There has long been concern that Mongolia's livestock population of more than 40 million animals is well beyond sustainable levels.

But the Red Cross Red Crescent says this sudden loss of millions of animals has had a disproportionate effect on the welfare of the most vulnerable families with the smallest herds.

The wider economy has also suffered in a country where animal husbandry provides 35% of employment and represents 19% of the GDP.

Buyanbadrakh Zagarin is the local governor in the area where the Galsaikhan family live. His job is to try to keep this district on its feet.

Driving to the far corners of his domain across frozen rivers and snow plains where vehicles frequently get stuck and need to be dug out, he checks on the herders and their stock.

He has few resources to share out among the needy and much demand for them.

He admits the authorities did not see this coming. They did not do enough to prepare for the severe winter. But he says the priority now is getting the community through the crisis.

"When I visit the herder families, often the children are crying, the women are crying, they say 'there's no way we can live like this'," he says.

Some of them even threaten to take their own lives.

"I say, 'No! You shouldn't. There's a lot more to live for'," he says.

Worse to come?

At the local hospital, the doctors say the health of the whole community is suffering. The extreme cold is harmful enough, but the stress it causes is making people ill too.

There are not enough beds to treat the herders who need their help. New patients arrive every day.

Dr Orkhon Gonchigdorj runs the facility. "We've never seen a winter like this," she says. "So many sick people - there's not enough room to look after them."

She too feels the pressure. "We're working all hours, no breaks, no time off. Working day and night," she says.

Several international aid agencies including the Red Cross Red Crescent, Save the Children and Unicef are working on the relief effort.

Some foreign aid - food for families, fodder for their animals - has started to arrive, but this family has not seen much of it.

The family says it will be mid-May before the weather will start to improve. They are already going without some of their food using it instead to feed their animals.

They fear the next few weeks will be the toughest yet this winter.

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